Philadelphia and its environs are emblematic of what’s gone wrong with local news. The area is served by a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a powerhouse public radio station, WHYY, as well as various television newscasts. But the focus of those outlets is regional, not local. At the grassroots neighborhood and community levels where people actually live, journalism is scarce and looked upon with suspicion.
Rebuilding local news in places like the Philadelphia area is the subject of Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust.
An ethical breakdown at one of our great universities. A media maelstrom involving secret emails and possible conflicts of interest. And hints that there may be more to come.
The weeks-long drama over former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito’s financial entanglements with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who recently committed suicide while facing charges that he had sexually abused underage girls, came to a sickening head over the weekend. Ito resigned after Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that Ito and the Media Lab had taken more money from Epstein than he had previously admitted to, and had gone to great lengths to conceal the source of that money — with lab employees referring to Epstein in emails as “Voldemort” and “he who must not be named.”
Despite Ito’s departure, we may be still closer to the beginning of this story than the end. Many unanswered questions remain. Here, then, are three lines of inquiry that I hope will be pursued in the days and weeks ahead.
• How did Ronan Farrow manage to do it again? Followers of the technology journalist Xeni Jardin knew The New York Times was working on a major story about Ito’s ties to Epstein. Those ties became a public issue in mid-August, at which point one of the lab’s most prominent researchers, Ethan Zuckerman, announced he would leave in protest. Adding to the buzz about the impending Times story was Ito’s status as a member of the New York Times Co.’s board.
The Times’ story came out last Thursday. In the main, it was sympathetic to Ito, who was cast as apologetic for his ties to Epstein. Ito also made it clear he was angry that the lab’s co-founder, Nicholas Negroponte, had strongly defended Ito’s decision to take Epstein’s money, a move that Ito believed had undermined his own attempts to make amends. The Negroponte angle had been reported the day before by the MIT Technology Review.
A day later Farrow, who has broken a number of #MeToo stories, blew Ito out of the water with documents provided by a whistle blower, former Media Lab employee Signe Swenson. Farrow’s article contained some harrowing details. One that struck me in particular was that, while Epstein was touring the lab, female employees talked about what they should do if one of the two attractive young women who had accompanied Epstein came to them and asked for help.
Within hours of publication on The New Yorker’s website, Ito had resigned from MIT and from the Times Co.’s board.
How could it be that the Times did not have the documents or the details that Farrow had? “I told the @nytimes everything,” tweeted Jardin. “So did whistleblowers I was in touch with inside @MIT and @Edge [another organization she’s been keeping tabs on]. They printed none of the most damning truths. @joi is on the board of the NYT. THANK GOD FOR @RonanFarrow.”
I told the @nytimes everything. So did whistleblowers I was in touch with inside @MIT and @Edge. They printed none of the most damning truths. @joi is on the board of the NYT.
Was Jardin saying that the Times had the same emails and documents as Farrow but had chosen not to report on them? Not explicitly — but New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, a prominent media observer, thought that’s what she meant, and he said so on Twitter. It turned out that was not the case, and Rosen responded by issuing a retraction and correction. Rosen was then called out by the Times’ Michael Barbaro, host of “The Daily,” who tweeted at Rosen: “How about doing a lot more reporting and a lot less tweeting.”
There but for the grace of God etc. I was among those who retweeted Jardin’s “THANK GOD FOR @RonanFarrow” tweet, although I refrained from publicly assuming the Times had the documents. Still, that seemed to be a reasonable interpretation of what Jardin was saying.
So what’s next? I think the Times owes us an explanation about what it had and what it didn’t have. I don’t believe the news side would cover for a board member (if anything, the reporters and editors would probably have liked to claim a pelt), but the fact remains that the Times got beaten on an important story with a tie to its own corporate board and that it had devoted considerable resources to.
• Was Ito’s behavior an aberration — or business as usual? Not to give Ito a pass on dealing with someone as uniquely awful as Epstein. According to all reliable accounts, Epstein destroyed the lives of many girls and young women. Still, Ito is hardly the first person to accept money from dubious sources.
For instance, MIT (and Harvard) have played host to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, believed by U.S. intelligence to be responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (The visit took place before Khashoggi’s death, but bin Sultan was already developing a reputation as a tyrant.) Some of the top cultural and educational institutions in the country have wrestled with what to do about donations from the Sackler family, whose fortune derives from sales of OxyContin.
It’s probably fair to say that within the world of philanthropy, there is an overall sense that one person’s money is as green as another’s, and that there’s no reason not to take it as long as donors understand they are not buying influence. Few hands are clean. For instance, the late David Koch was, for a time, a member of WGBH’s board, a matter of some controversy given his and his brother Charles’ well-funded campaign on behalf of climate-change denial.
A friend of Ito’s, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, went so far as to write an essay defending not just Ito’s decision to take Epstein’s money but to maintain Epstein’s anonymity as well. Lessig comes across as genuinely anguished over the events of the past month, so I don’t want to suggest that he made light of the donations. But he does make an interesting argument: that anonymity, rather than being additional evidence of sleaze, was actually appropriate because it prevented Epstein from using his donations to improve his public image.
“I think that universities should not be the launderers of reputation,” Lessig wrote. “I think that they should not accept blood money. Or more precisely, I believe that if they are going to accept blood money …, they should only ever accept that money anonymously.”
Taking a more conventional (and, frankly, more defensible) view was New York Times technology columnist Kara Swisher, who describes herself as a friendly acquaintance of Ito’s. “Mr. Ito’s plummet this weekend was much deserved, certainly swift, and also shocking,” she wrote, adding: “These corner-cutting ethics have too often become part and parcel to the way business is done in the top echelons of tech, allowing those who violate clear rules and flout decent behavior to thrive and those who object to such behavior to endure exhausting pushback.”
Seth Mnookin, a science journalist at MIT, said the Ito-Epstein connection should prompt some soul-searching. “Instead of viewing this as an isolated incident,” Mnookin wrote for Stat, “universities, colleges, and cultural institutions should use it as an impetus to take a difficult look at their own fundraising efforts. Refusing money from a convicted pedophile should be a no-brainer, but it’s time that the larger academic and scientific communities examine our willingness to accept money from donors whose actions directly oppose our values and missions, even if they’re not overtly criminal.”
Some good, tough-minded journalism could help move that process along.
• What are they doing over there?Since its founding some three decades ago, the Media Lab has been celebrated for its innovative spirit. Electronic ink, technology used in the original Amazon Kindle, was developed at the lab. Nicholas Negroponte popularized the idea of the “Daily Me,” a virtual newspaper tailored the interests of the individual reader. Negroponte was also well-known for his “One Laptop Per Child” initiative to bring computer access to poor children around the world.
But what, exactly has the lab done lately? I’m not sure I know. Several years ago Ethan Zuckerman was the co-author of a much-cited study showing that media polarization was mainly caused by right-wingers sealing themselves off from mainstream sources of information. It was important work. But, in general, it strikes me that the lab has a lower profile today than it did at one time.
And that lower profile may be the least of its problems. Several days ago, Business Insider reported that a “personal food computer” developed at the lab does not actually work, and that “staff were told to place plants grown elsewhere into the devices” before they were shown off to unwitting visitors. Is that an anomaly? Perhaps it’s an extreme example. But Justin Peters, a journalist who says that at one time he was smitten with the lab and its ethos, argued in Slate that questionable projects carried out on behalf of its corporate sponsors have become a defining characteristic.
“I realized that the things I had once found so exciting about the Media Lab — the architecturally distinct building, the quirky research teams, the robots and the canisters and the exhibits — amounted to a shrewd act of merchandising intended to lure potential donors into cutting ever-larger checks,” Peters wrote. “The lab’s leaders weren’t averse to making the world a better place, just as long as the sponsors got what they wanted in the process.”
The Business Insider report represents a good beginning. But now it’s time for other news organizations to look into what is actually taking place at the lab — and, more broadly, what happens when academic research is bent to serve the agenda of the titans of industry who fund it.
The crisis we are living through is, as Walter Lippmann would have said, a crisis of journalism.* Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”
The frequently stated truism that the public has lost trust in the news media is misunderstood. In fact, we trust the media we use, but the explosion of opinionated sources of news has led to an ideological sorting-out that has harmed democracy and civic discourse. As the Pew Research Center found a few years ago, a majority of liberals trust NPR, PBS, and the New York Times, whereas conservatives put their faith in Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. It hardly needs to be said that the so-called liberal sources of news are practicing actual journalism, however imperfectly, whereas the conservative sources serve up a toxic brew of falsehoods, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.
This polarized, choose-your-own-facts media environment is very different from the one proposed by Lippmann. A towering figure in 20th-century American journalism who was, among other things, a co-founder of The New Republic, Lippmann nearly a century ago reimagined newsgathering as a profession encompassing educational and ethical standards. Lippmann also conceived of the notion of objectivity, which, properly understood, refers to a “disinterested” pursuit of the truth. What matters, according to Lippmann, is a reporter’s independence: “Emphatically he ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good.” Unfortunately, objectivity later came to be seen as balance without regard for the facts. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism, first published in 2001, “the concept of objectivity became so mangled it began to be used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”
Lippmann laid out his vision in Liberty and the News (1920), a collection of essays in which he vividly described the rancid state of journalism in the early part of the 20th century as well as his prescription for making it better. No one is likely to improve on his description of journalism’s importance in a democratic society:
The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper, is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determine its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day. Now the power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind.
He added: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”
Lippmann’s main concern was public opinion and how it is produced, for it is what we think of events, rather than the events themselves, that forms the basis of politics and policy. He takes us through philosophers from John Milton to John Stuart Mill, who espoused various forms of toleration for opinions, and he acidly observes that their indulgence of toleration tended to be in direct proportion to the inoffensiveness of those opinions. In that view, ideas are fine as long as they pose no threat to the established order. Which is to say that ideas that truly matter are not fine at all.
A better basis for public opinion, Lippmann argued, is fact — and that’s where an improved, more substantive journalism comes in. Journalists trained to use authoritative sources of information, to make sense of the torrent of news and non-news being spewed in every direction, and to report truthfully and with the proper context are vital to self-government, he wrote.
Interestingly, Lippmann predicted that if the news media could not reform themselves, they faced the specter of government regulation. “There is everywhere,” he wrote, “an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.” Some things never change. Yet, at the time Lippmann was writing, the Supreme Court was about to embark on a series of rulings that had the effect of greatly expanding freedom of speech and of the press by erecting high barriers for prior restraint, allowing virtually all criticism of the government, and making it nearly impossible for public officials and public figures to win frivolous libel suits.
Around the time that Lippmann was writing, the news business began adopting professional standards, partly in response to his ideas, partly as a natural outgrowth of the increasing complexity and specialization of the industrial age. Codes of ethics were promulgated, the organization that became the Society of Professional Journalists was founded, and schools of journalism were established at many universities. This was elite journalism designed to lead public opinion — a prospect that met with Lippmann’s approval. He disparaged the typical newsroom as comprising men for whom “reporting is not a dignified profession” but was, rather, an “underpaid, insecure, anonymous form of drudgery, conducted on catch-as-catch-can principles.” He added:
How far can we go in turning newspaper enterprise from a haphazard trade into a disciplined profession? Quite far, I imagine, for it is altogether unthinkable that a society like ours should remain forever dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses.
In Liberty and the News, Lippmann balanced his fundamental elitism with his concern for the informational needs of the public. In his later writings, though, the balance tipped in favor of elitism at the expense of the public. As described by Jay Rosen in What Are Journalists For? (1999), Lippmann, starting with his best-known book, Public Opinion (1922), argued that the purpose of journalism was to mold opinion — to “manufacture consent” — for a public that lacked the time and the inclination to seek out the truth for itself. Public opinion, Lippmann wrote, was “an irrational force,” adding: “With the substance of the problem it can do nothing but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically.”
Speaking up in opposition to this pessimistic view, Rosen wrote, was the philosopher John Dewey, who answered Lippmann in his book The Public and Its Problems (1927). In Dewey’s view, the role of journalism was not to shut out public participation but, rather, to find ways for the public to participate, especially at the community level. “Democracy for Dewey,” according to Rosen, “meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how study and discuss it.”
Today we can see the harmful effects of Lippmann-style elitism run amok. For one thing, “elite” has long since entered the vocabulary as a dirty word. Expertise itself is denigrated, and the so-called wisdom of the common people is held up as a virtuous alternative to decadent journalists and intellectuals who are allegedly out of touch with the concerns of everyday life. If we had followed Dewey instead of Lippmann, that alienation might not exist.
Here’s how the media scholar James W. Carey, in his essay “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media’” (reprinted in his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, 1989), summarized Dewey’s disagreement with Lippmann: “Public opinion is not formed when individuals possess correct representations of the environment [as Lippmann would have it], even if correct representations were possible. It is formed only in discussion, when it is made active in community life.” Imagine if journalism were a participatory process rather than a monologue driven from the top — the promise, still unfulfilled, of internet-based news. If we were in better touch with the public we ostensibly serve, it might be more apparent that the Washington Post is not the liberal equivalent of Fox News but, rather, is engaged in an entirely different sort of enterprise.
Lippmann lived a long and influential life. As David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be (1979), Lippmann urged Katharine Graham to consider hiring Ben Bradlee as executive editor of the Washington Post, a move that transformed the paper into a serious rival of the New York Times and helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency. As a syndicated columnist, Lippmann supported the Vietnam War and later turned against it once it became clear that the experts of whom he was so enamored had promoted a ruinous policy.
Despite Lippmann’s embrace of elitism, he remained convinced that the public needed reliable news. In 1971, when the New York Times and the Washington Post were under fire for publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War, Times columnist James Reston quoted at length from a speech his old friend had given eleven years earlier about the role of the press.
“If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed,” Lippmann said, “then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. … Here we correspondents perform an essential service. In some field of interest, we make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon. …
“In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do, but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it, and to be glad that it is our work.”
Yet Lippmann could be withering about journalism that fell short of his standards. In 1920 he and Charles Merz published an in-depth analysis of how the New York Times had covered the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. They found that the Times had consistently skewed coverage in favor of what its editors wished would happen — that the Bolsheviks would continue Russia’s involvement in the war against Germany, and then, after the war, that the various White Army factions would defeat the Bolsheviks.
“In the large,” they wrote, “the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” They added: “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all.”
Lippmann would be dispirited to see that these flaws are still with us, and that they have played out to disastrous effect over and over again. That was especially true during the run-up to the war in Iraq, when most news organizations accepted at face value the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. You could also see it in coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a private email server was held up as an example of wrongdoing equal to Donald Trump’s racism, his boasts of sexual assault, and his corrupt dealings with his family’s charitable foundation.
Ninety-nine years after the publication of Liberty and the News, journalists are better educated, have higher professional standards, and are more likely to adhere to basic ethical rules. Lippmann surely played an important role in those developments. Yet deference to power and false notions of objectivity continue to plague the press, leading to coverage that falls short of serving even that portion of the public that seeks journalism rather than propaganda. Lippmann’s hopes remain unfulfilled.
*About a week and a half after this essay was published, I was paging through Thomas E. Patterson’s Informing the News when I came across this quote from Liberty and the News: “In an exact sense the present crisis in Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” I have revised my lead sentence to credit Lippmann. Obviously I had seen the sentence and it had stuck in my head, but not so completely that I had remembered where I got it. Not surprisingly, Lippmann put it far better than I could have.
Last week I was asked a provocative question. What prompted it was a panel discussion of The New York Times’ 14,000-word exposé of how President Trump built his fortune on the dual foundations of his father’s wealth and of legally dubious tax schemes. The story was such a sensation that the Times printed it twice — once on Oct. 3 and again the following Sunday. Yet it seems to have barely resonated beyond the Times’ core readership.
Why, the panelists were asked, should we care? Thanks to the Trump effect, paid subscriptions are up at mainstream newspapers like the Times and The Washington Post, listenership has grown at NPR, and donations to nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica have increased. Wasn’t that good enough?
I responded that journalists want to do more than reach an audience. They want to have impact. They want to see concrete evidence that great reporting has an effect. That doesn’t mean journalists — good ones, anyway — want to change the outcome of elections or substitute their own judgment for that of the public. But it does mean that when they do important work, they want it to resonate beyond those already inclined to believe them without having it immediately dismissed as #fakenews by those on the other side of the social and cultural divide. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in our current hyperpolarized environment.
I’m not sure what can be done. But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of our most perceptive media observers, thinks he knows what’s behind much of it: a deliberate blizzard of lying by our president aimed at burying stories beneath an avalanche of falsehoods; a right-wing populist movement in the United States and Europe that dismisses anything coming out of the mainstream press as corrupt and elitist; and the decline of trust in the media, accompanied and exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of journalism’s business model.
The heart of Rosen’s argument is contained within a recent post at his blog, PressThink:
In the United States the President is leading a hate movement against journalism, and with his core supporters it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running. Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone. No one knows what to do about it.
Of course, Trump wouldn’t be able to wield this kind of power over the truth if he didn’t have enablers in the media, principally Fox News. But here we are some three and half years since he rode down the escalator and into the center of our political life, and too many journalists still don’t know how to cover him. Not that there are any obvious solutions. But surely the editors at USA Today knew better than to publish his falsehood-filled op-ed piece last week. And mainstream outlets too often engage in coverage that normalizes this most abnormal of presidents.
A large part of what needs to happen, Rosen says, is to acknowledge precisely what Trump is doing. I’m enough of a traditionalist that I have been more comfortable with describing Trump’s “falsehoods” rather than “lies,” mainly because we have no way of crawling inside his head to determine whether he knows the difference. Far too often, though, Trump traffics in false information that has been thoroughly debunked so many times that he has to know better. Through mid-September, he had spoken falsely more than 5,000 times as president. It’s clear that many of those falsehoods are deliberate, and that he lies for a reason. Rosen, in a Twitter thread, explained what Trump is doing:
Flooding the system with too much news, much of it misleading or simply false, not only reduces the weight of any individual story; it has the further effect of keeping opponents in a pop-eyed state of outrage, which in turns shows supporters a hateful image of the other side.
And that is why journalists care not just about reaching their own pre-determined audience but in changing hearts and minds. In decades past, reporters made a difference in how we thought about civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Now nothing seems to matter. The Times’ tax story, Rosen wrote in his Twitter thread, “is proving to be simultaneously devastating and harmless, a news condition previously unknown to presidents facing a check-on-power press.” Trump is a historically unpopular president, yet he continues to exert a mesmerizing hold on his base — a base that has proved impervious to facts.
The Times and the Post, in particular, are doing a magnificent job of telling the story of the Trump era. Those two papers have never been more important than they are today. Yet in a fundamental way they have ceased to matter. Democracy dies in darkness. But it might also die in the clear light of day if not enough people care — no matter how much our audience has grown or how many subscriptions we’ve sold.
Jay Rosen announced last week that he would be taking a role with The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch news project that its founders hope to launch next year. Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and one of our most perceptive media observers, explained in an essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab that he was intrigued because The Correspondent has been “optimized for trust.” Among other things, the site will be free of advertising, and reporters will be required to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers.
At CommonWealth Magazine, Jack Sullivan offers a good overview of a massive conflict of interest in Quincy, where GateHouse Media’s marketing subsidiary is bidding for a city contract in the shadow of GateHouse’s Patriot Ledger, headquartered in Quincy.
The GateHouse subsidiary, Propel Marketing, has already done work for Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch.
My insta-analysis is that newspaper owners always create conflicts of interest. Washington Post reporters have to cover Amazon, whose founder and chief executive is the Post‘s owner, Jeff Bezos. To extend that a little further, Amazon does business with the CIA, a major beat for the Post. The Boston Globe, owned by John Henry, covers the Red Sox, and Henry is the principal owner. And newspaper publishers have always held roles in the community that journalists shouldn’t, such as chairing the local chamber of commerce.
What matters is whether those conflicts are handled in a way that’s transparent, ethical, and arm’s-length. Given GateHouse’s recent misadventures involving casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I’d say the Quincy situation needs to be watched very closely.
Correction: In the first version of this post I wrote that the Patriot Ledger‘s headquarters are in Braintree. In fact, the Ledger is located in an office park on the Quincy side of the Quincy-Braintree line.
According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 32 percent of registered Republicans and voters who lean Republican favor Donald Trump. And 34 percent of registered Democrats and Democratic leaners support Bernie Sanders.
Why am I telling you this? Because members of the political press are having a collective nervous breakdown over their inability to shake Trump’s support despite his lies about “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and his overall thuggish behavior. So keep those poll numbers in mind, because I’ll come back to them in a few moments. First, though, I want to discuss the angst that has broken out within the pundit class.
The redoubtable media observer Jay Rosen, author of the blog PressThink, wrote about the Trump phenomenon earlier this week. “The laws of political gravity” never actually existed, Rosen argued, and the Trump campaign has merely exposed that fact:
The whole system rested on shared beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump “tested” and violated most of them—and he is still leading in the polls…. The political press is pretty stunned by these developments. It keeps asking: when will the “laws of political gravity” be restored? Or have they simply vanished?
In an interview Sunday on Effective Radio with Bill Samuels, New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta expressed the conventional view of how the media have enabled Trump’s rise—the “embarrassing” amount of attention they’ve given him in order to goose ratings and the obsessive attention paid to polls at a time when few ordinary Americans can even name non-celebrity candidates such as Chris Christie or John Kasich. “You’ve just got to give it time,” Auletta said, “but the press is so desperate to create narrative and to make competition exciting.”
Trump’s making fun of a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski, and his easily debunked claimthat he didn’t know Kovaleski was disabled, seems to have struck nerve. No, it wasn’t the first time Trump had gone after a journalist. Earlier he had attacked Megyn Kelly of Fox News and Jorge Ramos of Univision. But Trump’s cruel imitation of Kovaleski’s twisted hands was so outrageous that—to return to Rosen’s theme—it would have ended his candidacy if the “laws of political gravity” actually existed.
In a commentary for the NewsGuild of New York website, union president Peter Szekely urged his fellow reporters to stay away from the “he said-she said” treatment. “Here’s my message to reporters covering Trump,” Szekely wrote. “The reporter-mocking incident will be regurgitated numerous times going forward. When you report on it, you’ll need to mention that Trump denied it, of course. But you saw the video. You heard the words. You know the truth. Don’t hide from it.”
Now, of course, Trump’s rise has been real—more real than I and most other political observers had expected. But let me offer some perspective. In fact, what we are seeing is the acceleration of a trend in the Republican nominating process that began in 2008, when the establishment candidate, John McCain, was nearly hounded out of the campaign for insufficient wing-nuttery before coming back to win the nomination.
Which brings me back to those poll numbers. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is trailing Hillary Clinton by the considerable margin of 60 percent to 34 percent. In other words, Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has consolidated the one-third of Democratic voters who will always support the most left-wing candidate. Unlike Trump, Sanders is a serious person with serious ideas. He also seems to have succeeded in pushing Clinton to the left of her comfort zone. But no one except true believers expects Sanders to be sworn in on January 20, 2017.
Trump, if you ignore the margin of error (and you shouldn’t, but never mind), is actually doing less well among Republicans than Sanders is among Democrats. But on the Republican side, with a huge field of contenders, 32 percent is enough to lead the field. At some point, establishment support is going to coalesce around one or two candidates, and Trump’s hold on a quarter to a third of the Republican electorate is going to look a lot less impressive. Marco Rubio would appear to be the most likely beneficiary of this process. But even Jeb Bush looks no more hapless than Mitt Romney did in late 2011.
In a recent analysis for The Wall Street Journal, Dante Chinni, a political scientist at Michigan State University, found that support for the establishment Republican candidates during the current campaign mirrors Romney’s in late 2011. It wasn’t until January 2012, Chinni noted, that Romney started to achieve liftoff.
“If that establishment vote comes together by January,” Chinni wrote, “the leading establishment candidate can win delegates in the early primaries and caucuses, which start in February, and build momentum.”
In September, Trump told a crowd gathered in Washington to oppose the nuclear agreement with Iran, “We will have so much winning when I get elected that you will get bored with winning.”
So much winning. In fact, Trump is not winning, and he’s not going to win. Members of the political press may wring their hands over their inability to convince Trump’s supporters that his lies, his outrageous statements, and even his flirtation with fascismshould disqualify him from the presidency. But the overwhelming majority of the public wants nothing to do with Trump.
I don’t think the media deserve the credit for Trump’s low ceiling. But I certainly don’t believe the press should be blamed for Trump’s continuing support among a minority of one of our two major parties. To paraphrase what Joseph Kennedy once said about his son Bobby (as reported by Robert Caro), they love him because he hates like they hate. That’s not going to change—but neither is it going to get him elected.
I really don’t understand why the folks at NBC News think serial fabricator Brian Williams can be rehabilitated. CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that Williams’ second act could be announced as early as today.
Yes, Williams is receiving a significant demotion — he’s supposedly being shipped off to MSNBC, which had a nice run as the liberal alternative to Fox News before plunging into unwatched obscurity the past couple of years. But given that NBC News major domo Andrew Lack is reportedly seeking to revive MSNBC with an injection of actual news, how can a guy who set fire to his own credibility be part of that? As Jay Rosen put it on Twitter: “NBC has to explain how he’s lost the credibility to anchor the nightly news but still has the cred to do the news on MSNBC.”
Remember, we’re not just talking about Williams’ lies regarding his helicopter ride in Iraq. There have been multiple instances in which he overstated the facts or just made stuff up. The New York Times reports:
Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
And just wait until one of Williams’ anonymous enemies posts a “closely held” clip reel on YouTube that is said to document his worst moments. The Washington Post has this to say:
The video, produced by the team of NBC journalists assigned to review Williams’s statements in media appearances, makes a vivid case against the anchor, according to people familiar with it, isolating a number of questionable statements Williams has made.
Professional cynic Michael Wolff told old friend Mark Leibovich recently that NBC never should have abandoned Williams in the first place. Rather, he said, the network’s executives should have done their best Roger Ailes imitation and defended him as aggressively as Fox News has defended its own business interests.
But this is stupidity masquerading as sagacity. NBC News is not the Fox News Channel. Fox’s product is right-wing talk. NBC News’ purported product is news, served up truthfully. In that market, Williams’ value plunged to zero or close to it within days of his exposure last winter. (The next person who says he would rather see Williams back in the anchor chair rather than Lester Holt will be the first.) I suspect Wolff knows that, but the man does enjoy being provocative.
As for Williams, he needs to leave journalism. And it’s not up to NBC to help him figure out how.
Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
I’ve asked my students to come up with examples of news stories that reflect the View from Nowhere — an idea advanced by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen that, to oversimplify, amounts to “he said/she said” objectivity in its most mindless form — and to balance that with a second story demonstrating the View from Somewhere.
Since some of my students seemed a bit bewildered by the assignment, I thought I’d give it a try. My example is an announcement made on Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two agencies have issued a new set of rules aimed at protecting small streams under the federal Clean Water Act. The rules are a reaction to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that cast the government’s regulatory authority into doubt.
My leading contender for the View from Nowhere is an article by The Associated Press whose very headline announces the story’s flaws: “New Federal Rules on Stream Protection Hailed, Criticized.” The reporter, Mary Clare Jalonick, focuses almost entirely on the political debate sparked by the new rules. The lede is serviceable enough. But watch what happens in the second paragraph:
WASHINGTON (AP) — New federal rules designed to better protect small streams, tributaries and wetlands — and the drinking water of 117 million Americans — are being criticized by Republicans and farm groups as going too far.
The White House says the rules, issued Wednesday, will provide much-needed clarity for landowners about which waterways must be protected against pollution and development. But House Speaker John Boehner declared they will send “landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”
And so it continues, with Democrats defending the new rules, Republicans criticizing them and advocacy groups on either side of the issue weighing in. Yes, there’s some explanation along the way, but you never get an entirely clear sense of what the rules would actually do. Rather, it’s a political story, played out against the backdrop of partisan Washington. The informational needs of an ordinary member of the public are scarcely addressed.
I’ll get to my example of the View from Somewhere in a moment. But first, I want to flag this Washington Post story, which is largely grounded in the View from Nowhere but does a better job than the AP of telling us what we need to know — starting with the headline, “EPA Strengthens Federal Protections for Small Streams.” The emphasis is on what the EPA actually did and what effect it might have rather than on partisan politics. The first two paragraphs are full of useful information. Reporter Darryl Fears writes:
Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court pointed out the confusion over exactly which waters fall under the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration responded Wednesday with a new rule that states what is protected and what is not.
Navigable tributaries, as well as the rivers they feed into, are protected because the flow of streams and creeks, if polluted by farming and development, could affect the health of rivers and lakes, the rule states.
Farther down, Fears veers into the partisan battle, quoting an opponent, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, as well as the White House response. The story is also interspersed with tweets from elected officials. But partisan politics are not entirely unimportant, as congressional Republicans could overturn the new rules. Overall, Fears shows how to write a story that embraces the View from Nowhere while still managing to provide a coherent explanation of what happened and why.
My morning search for a story exemplifying the View from Somewhere failed to turn up exactly what I was looking for. But I did find an excellent article on the clean-waters issue from last September in Slate, which has always been a good source of explanatory journalism. With minor updating, the article, by Boer Deng, could have run today — and cast a lot more light on the EPA’s announcement than the AP or even the Post managed to provide. Look how she begins:
Everyone wants clean water, but not everyone agrees on how to make sure it stays pollution-free. The Clean Water Act is one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in American history: Forty years ago, only a third of the country’s lakes and rivers could support fishing or swimming. Now two-thirds do. But when a bill for the CWA was offered up in 1972, Richard Nixon vetoed it, complaining that it would cost too much. It took a bipartisan congressional override to enact the law.
Controversy over the CWA continues, and a particularly ambiguous phrase in the law has been a perennial source of legal trouble. The CWA compels the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the integrity of the “waters of the United States.” Industrial interests argue that a reference in the text of the law to “navigable waters” limits federal jurisdiction to waters you can boat on. This has let them get away with discharging pollution into smaller waterways. Regulators disagree, since pollutants in these waterways drain into and threaten larger navigable waters, too.
OK, I’ll concede that Deng is leading with background information, which is generally thought of as not the best way to structure a story. But this is a really complicated issue. Thanks to Deng’s explanation, you now know exactly what it’s about before she asks you to jump into the deep end.
One characteristic about the View from Somewhere that can be difficult to get across is that though journalism with a point of view is sometimes opinionated, it doesn’t have to be. Deng takes a first-person stance and expresses the point of view that clean water is, in fact, a good thing. But she does not state an opinion as to whether the regulations that were then being considered were the best way to accomplish that goal. This isn’t opinion journalism. Her point of view is her expertise, which she earned by going out and doing the reporting.
As a result, opponents become human beings rather than caricatures. Instead of House Speaker John Boehner or Sen. Inhofe saying predictable things, she gives us Bob Stallman, head of the Farm Bureau, who asks a very reasonable question: “A good portion of the water on my rice farm would count as wetland ‘water of the U.S.’ Will I now need a permit every time I want to water my rice?” And Deng attempts to provide an answer: “The EPA says this is nonsense — and some of its administrators have expressed exasperation with what they see as willful misinterpretation that has undermined efforts to craft sound policy.”
Jay Rosen’s idea of what journalism can be is animated by the debate between two great philosophers — Walter Lippmann, whose book “Public Opinion” (1922) argued that ordinary people lacked the information, time and interest to be full participants in democracy, and John Dewey, whose retort to Lippmann, “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), took a more optimistic view. Rosen, in his 1999 book “What Are Journalists For?”, describes Dewey’s beliefs:
Democracy for Dewey meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how to study and discuss it. Time and again Dewey argued that to be a democrat meant to have faith in people’s capacities, whatever their recent performance.
(I put together a slideshow for my students on Rosen’s description of the Lippmann-Dewey debate, which you can see by clicking here.)
For Rosen, and for all of us, the question is how to encourage the journalism we need for John Dewey’s vision of a democratic society to work. It is also at the root of my 2013 book on new forms of online local journalism, “The Wired City.”
Stories such as Deng’s Slate article may not conform to the old rules of objective journalism. They may not embrace the View from Nowhere. But they tell us a lot more about what we need to understand public policy — about what our government is doing for and to us — and, thus, it provides us with information we need to govern ourselves.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist at the heart of the Rolling Stone rape-story scandal, harbored doubts about “Jackie,” her principal source, all along — or, at the very least, had come to doubt her by the time the story was published.
That’s the only way I can make sense of a remarkable section that appears fairly early in the Columbia Journalism Review’s 12,000-word report on Rolling Stone’s article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia for which there turned out to be no credible evidence. The report was written by Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism; Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate researcher. According to the report:
A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”
Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”
Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.
“An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her — a man she professed to fear deeply?
Over the next few days, worried about the integrity of her story, the reporter investigated the name Jackie had provided, but she was unable to confirm that he worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified or had other connections to Jackie or her description of her assault. She discussed her concerns with her editors. Her work faced new pressures. The writer Richard Bradley had published early if speculative doubts about the plausibility of Jackie’s account. Writers at Slate had challenged Erdely’s reporting during a podcast interview. She also learned that T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter, was preparing a story based on interviews at the University of Virginia that would raise serious doubts about Rolling Stone’s reporting.
Late on Dec. 4, Jackie texted Erdely, and the writer called back. It was by now after midnight. “We proceeded to have a conversation that led me to have serious doubts,” Erdely said.
You can see the problem. The story had already been published and had created a sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely told the report’s authors. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” And Erdely felt queasy enough about what she had written that she was still bugging Jackie for the name of the guy who led the gang rape she claimed to have been subjected to at a UVA fraternity house.
From the time that Erdely’s story unraveled, I’ve been wondering what lessons journalists could take away from Rolling Stone’s institutional failures. Those failures were so profound and so basic that it’s hard to know how we can even look at this as a teachable moment. The lesson is “don’t do any of this.” As the CJR report makes clear:
Erdely had just one source, Jackie, for her account of the gang rape.
She made no more than a passing attempt at interviewing the alleged rapists — and, as we have seen, she never did find out the name of the supposed ringleader.
She also did not interview three friends of Jackie’s who supposedly spoke with Jackie shortly after the rape. As the author’s reports note, that stands out as the key failure, since they would have debunked many of the details, which in turn would likely have led to the unraveling of the entire story.
Jay Rosen of New York University has posted a must-read analysis of the CJR report. He writes, “The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.” Making the facts fit the story, in other words.
In reading the full CJR report, I think there are two other major problems: an understandable instinct to believe the victim (while less understandably ignoring the small internal voice saying, “No, wait, there’s something wrong here”). And a culture inside Rolling Stone that for whatever reason did not allow the story to be derailed even though everyone involved knew there were problems.
Sexual assault on campus is an enormous problem. I know there are those who question the oft-cited statistic that 20 percent of female students are victims. But whatever the true number is, it’s too high. Rolling Stone’s failures have set back efforts to do something about it. So I’ll close by noting that the CJR quotes my former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi on the right way to do this kind of reporting. Lombardi’s work in this area for the Center for Public Integrity truly represents the gold standard. From the report:
Problems arise when the terms of the compact between survivor and journalist are not spelled out. Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.
If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.
In “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.”
Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her colleagues at Rolling Stone trusted (sort of) but did not verify.