Why ‘both sides’ journalism fails in the face of the rising threat to our democracy

Previously published at GBH News.

One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?

If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.

On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.

It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.

“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.

What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.

“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”

So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.

If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.

As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”

Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.

How The Denver Post stood up to McCarthy and exposed the limits of mindless balance

The Denver Post’s former downtown headquarters looms over the Colorado Statehouse. The Post itself now operates out of its printing plant in the suburbs. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

The McCarthy era is often cited as a time when the limits of journalistic objectivity were exposed for all to see. For years, the press reported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s false claims that he had a list of communists in a straight-up, deadpan manner, reasoning that it was their job to inform the country of what a United States senator was saying, not to offer any judgments.

But that’s not what Walter Lippmann had in mind when he first defined objective reporting a century ago. As he conceived it, objectivity was not acting as a conveyor belt for the lies of the powerful; nor was it mindless balance. Rather, it was an objective, fair-minded pursuit of the truth. Once you had determined the truth to the best of your ability, your job was to report it.

“We tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned because we’ve done the reporting,” retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said at a virtual appearance at Northeastern earlier this year. Baron defined objectivity as  “independence and open-mindedness and a posture of listening and learning.”

Recently I read a book as part of my research into local news that is about as obscure as you can imagine: “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post,” written by Post staffer Bill Hosokawa and published in 1976. And I was struck by how courageously the Post stood up to McCarthy — especially since, in previous decades, the Post had been mired in corruption and racism.

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By the time McCarthy came along, the Post’s editor was a stand-up guy named Palmer Hoyt, who was unflinching in his insistence on holding the Wisconsin senator to account. In a memo to his staff, he defined true objectivity in such a compelling way that it ought to be taught to every reporter. I’m not going to quote the entire memo, but here’s a key excerpt:

It is obvious that many charges made by reckless impulsive officials cannot and should not be ignored, but it seems to me that news stories and headlines can be presented in such a manner that the reading public will be able to measure the real worth or value and the true meaning of the stories.

For example, when it is possible and practical, we should remind the public in case of a wild accusation by Senator McCarthy that this particular senator’s name is synonymous with poor documentation and irresponsible conduct and that he has made many charges that have been insupportable under due process.

In 1954, Hoyt received the John Peter Zenger Freedom of the Press Award. In his acceptance speech, Hoyt continued to speak boldly, turning media critic: “It is true that the number of newspapers critical of McCarthy has grown during the last year or two. But there are still many of them who are his supporters, his apologists, even his devotees.” And he singled out the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst papers as particularly egregious offenders.

It hardly needs to be said that we are facing a crisis of democracy today — perhaps the most serious since the Civil War, as Robert Kagan recently wrote in The Washington Post (free link). The brainless objectivity of the 1950s has morphed into something else. As Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School has written, Donald Trump received an enormous assist from the press in 2016 by portraying his grotesque behavior and corruption as being equal to Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings — you know, her emails.

Today, Trump and his supporters, who seek to destroy the integrity of our elections in order to pave the way for an illegitimate second Trump term, are getting plenty of harsh coverage, as they should. But to absorb this through the media is to see it balanced against the Democrats’ struggles over its infrastructure bills and chaos at the border. It’s all both sides and false equivalence.

As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has said over and over again, the press is not equipped to cover a reality in which one of our two major political parties remains its normal self and the other has lurched into authoritarianism. You can see it in the headlines this week describing the debt-limit crisis as something the Democrats are struggling to solve — as if it’s a given that the Republicans have descended into madness and therefore can’t be blamed.

We are living through an incredibly ugly time. At the very least, we should remember what Palmer Hoyt said about the media’s obligation to tell the truth.

The media trust gap between Democrats and Republicans continues to widen

The latest findings from the Pew Research Center about trust in journalism are depressing but not surprising. Pew’s report, written by Jeffrey Gottfried and Jacob Liedke and published last week, shows that the gap between Democrats and Republicans continues to widen.

Over the past five years, the percentage of Republicans and Republican leaners who have some trust in national news has dropped from 70% to 35%. Meanwhile, 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say they have “a lot” or “some” trust in national news organizations.

The problem, as always, is the asymmetric polarization that has come to define our politics and our media consumption. If you spend all your time engaging with media outlets that tell you Donald Trump won the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection was no big deal, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is poisoning your (white) children’s minds, then you are going to distrust any news to the contrary. Essentially it’s a small number of right-wing sources of propaganda, led by Fox News, versus everyone else. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen put it this way:

Trust is higher for local news organizations than it is for the national media, but even here there’s a partisan gap. Two weeks ago I wrote about ways that community journalists could connect with conservatives, and yes, they should try. If we are ever going to overcome the partisan divide, it’s going to have to start at the local level. At the same time, though, we can’t pander to false beliefs. So it’s a dilemma with no obvious solution.

The template for the Bezos-Baron revival of the Post was set early on

Marty Baron, center. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

I was struck by how little new information there was in this New York Times overview of Marty Baron’s years as executive editor of The Washington Post. As described by Times reporter Marc Tracy, the Post succeeded under Baron and owner Jeff Bezos by switching its focus from regional to national, and from print to digital.

There’s more to it than just that, of course, and Tracy’s piece is worthwhile if you’re not familiar with the subject. The ground that Tracy covers is laid out in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” The Bezos-Baron template was set early on. In recent years, the Post has continued to grow (its digital subscriber base now exceeds 3 million, and more than 1,000 journalists work in the newsroom), but that’s simply a continuation of earlier trends.

Likewise, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been touting a comment Baron made to CNN’s Brian Stelter about what he learned from Bezos: “One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors.” As Rosen says, “Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It’s not.”

In 2016 I asked Baron about the Post’s competition with the Times, and he answered the question in a manner similar to what he told Stelter. I compressed Baron’s answer in my book, but here’s a fuller quote:

Well, we don’t obsess about The New York Times in that sense. We don’t see that as our only competition. We see other people as our competition and, frankly, we see all calls on people’s time and in terms of getting news and information as being a competition for us, not to mention all the other competition for people’s time.

One aspect of the Bezos-Baron era that Tracy leaves out is the role of technology in the Post’s revival. Under chief technologist Shailesh Prakash (like Baron, a holdover from the Graham era), the Post developed state-of-the-art digital products that are fast and a pleasure to use — better than the Times’ very good products, quite frankly.

Overall, the Bezos-Baron partnership has been good for the Post, good for journalism and good for the public. I hope the next editor can build on Baron’s legacy.

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‘Trumpcast’ draws to a close

Perhaps the only thing I’ll miss about the Trump era is “Trumpcast,” a podcast produced by Slate and hosted by the longtime journalist Virginia Heffernan. Wise, witty and profane, Heffernan has guided us through the insanity for the past five years. I started listening about two years ago, and I didn’t catch every episode. But I appreciated the way she and her guests guided us through a terrible time in our history. So it was with a sense of instant nostalgia that I listened to her final episode while I was out on a walk Saturday.

The guest on the grand finale was New York University journalism professor and PressThink blogger Jay Rosen. Rosen summarized his most recent piece, in which he argued that the media finally found their voice and stood up for democracy once it became clear in the aftermath of the election that Donald Trump really did intend to steal a second term. Before that, he said, the press too often wallowed in bothsides-ism and normalized Trump’s corrupt, authoritarian behavior.

As I wrote recently, I don’t think the media’s performance was quite that bad. Sure, there was some normalization that took place, which was inevitable in covering the president day to day. But after turning in a horrendous performance during the 2016 campaign, I think much of the media dug in and covered Trump with the harshness and investigative zeal that he deserved. The problem is larger than journalism alone can solve. Our culture has become profoundly tribal, and any negative coverage of Trump was seen by his supporters as just further evidence that the media were out to get their hero. The 52% disapprove/42% approve dynamic never budged.

After Rosen left, Heffernan and her producer, Melissa Kaplan, kicked around the show’s greatest hits. They sounded like they’re going to miss “Trumpcast” too, though not the reason for its existence. It was a fun retrospective, and I think both of them accurately identified what made “Trumpcast” special — its giving a voice to alternative perspectives and not just those from the “normcore.”

As for what’s next, they’re both going to continue to be involved in podcasting. Heffernan will be hosting a show about the aftermath of Trumpism for Lawfare, which I’m looking forward to hearing.

With Trump gone and his allies in revolt, what’s next for the media?

Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston

Previously published at GBH News.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, his detractors have complained bitterly that he was being enabled, or “normalized,” by the mainstream media. For the extremely online Resistance in particular, Twitter became a place to rail against the press for failing to point out that Trump’s every utterance, gesture and action was an outrage against decency and a threat to the republic.

“Trump has been at war with an unraveling America for years,” wrote the liberal press critic Eric Boehlert a day after Trump supporters staged a deadly riot inside the Capitol. “The parallel reality has been that the American press corps has not figured out how to deal with that frightening scenario. It hasn’t properly grappled with the idea that our commander-in-chief would purposefully try to harm America’s security and undo its democratic traditions.”

Boehlert’s not wrong. A year into Trump’s presidency, I took The New York Times to task for what I saw as its overly passive, both-sides approach, which I contrasted with The Washington Post’s sure-footedness.

And yet I find that I’ve grown impatient with these complaints, mainly because I can’t see how a different, harsher approach would have changed the course of the last four years. Never mind the 2016 campaign, which was a travesty of anti-Hillary Clinton bias that helped propel Trump into office. Overall, mainstream coverage of Trump’s time in the White House has been good enough, which is the most we can expect of a diverse, flawed institution.

Trump has been historically unpopular, yet a weirdly large minority continues to say he’s doing a good job no matter what. Take FiveThirtyEight’s average of approval ratings. The Battle of Capitol Hill sent Trump’s ratings sharply downward. But as of Tuesday afternoon, he was still at nearly 41% — pretty much where he always is.

Politically, at least, the story of the Trump years has been simple: He’s detested by a majority of the public, and they voted him out by a decisive margin the first chance they got. Explaining this isn’t rocket science.

Does anyone really believe that the mainstream media haven’t been largely negative in their coverage? Yes, there have been moments when The Times has been overly deferential, as befits a news organization that still thinks of itself as the nation’s paper of record and the presidency as an august institution. But investigative reporting by The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal have kept Trump back on his heels continuously for the past four years.

There have been a few exceptions — The Times on occasion and, sadly, NPR consistently. All too often I’ve turned on NPR and thought President George H.W. Bush was still in office and that the Democrats were working to stymie his legislative agenda. Last fall, NPR’s mild-mannered public editor, Kelly McBride, went so far as to complain that “there are moments, like the coverage of the first presidential debate, when NPR’s presentation is so understated that some in the audience feel they’ve been handed a distorted picture.” No kidding.

And yet another public media outlet that I had long criticized as a bastion of false equivalence, the “PBS NewsHour,” somehow managed to find its voice during the Trump presidency. Anchor Judy Woodruff, White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor and congressional reporter Lisa Desjardins rose to the moment, chronicling each day’s events with a calm but pointed devotion to seeking the truth and reporting it.

Through the Mueller investigation, Ukraine, impeachment, COVID-19, Trump’s blizzard of lies about the election results and now what looks very much like a failed coup attempt, mainstream coverage has, for the most part, been appropriately critical.

The one massive media failure has been something the mainstream can’t do anything about — the weaponized pro-Trump propaganda put out every day and night by Fox News, which more than anything has kept Trump’s approval rating from cratering. Fox now seems determined to get its mojo back after losing some of its audience to the likes of Newsmax and OANN, as it has switched from news to opinion at 7 p.m.

And let’s not overlook the role of Facebook and Twitter in amplifying Trumpist lies — a role with which the social-media giants are now rather ineptly coming to grips.

Longtime media observer Jay Rosen of New York University recently gave the media some credit for asserting themselves in recent months and warned that a slide back into the old paradigm of giving weight and authority to both political parties would prove disastrous.

“Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back,” he wrote, adding that the press “will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case.”

The rise of what may become a sustained right-wing resistance — a Tea Party armed with guns and brainwashed by QAnon — pretty much guarantees that the media won’t be able to slide back into their old habits once Trump is gone and the exceedingly normal President-elect Joe Biden takes his place.

As for whether the media are up to the challenge, I think we ought to take heart from the Trump era. Much of the press did what it could to hold Trump accountable and to shine a light on his repulsive words and actions. I’m hopeful that they’ll bring the same energy and sense of mission to covering whatever is coming next.

Georgia signals some hope, but Trump madness remains vigorous

The Proud Boys in Washington last month. Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

Previously published at GBH News.

And so today, at least for a few hours, we descend once again into the madness.

The past four days have been as dizzying as anything we’ve experienced as a nation, and would be seen as such if we hadn’t been dealing for the past four years with the terrible consequences of electing Donald Trump as president in 2016.

On Sunday, we learned that Trump had tried to muscle Georgia’s top election officials into awarding him the state in his ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the November election — surely an impeachable offense, and most likely a federal and state crime as well.

But life as we have come to know it during the Trump era rolled on. Republicans on Capitol Hill continued with their seditious plot to supersede the Electoral College, a tragicomedy upon which the curtain will rise later today. Thousands of MAGA protesters are arriving in Washington to urge them on. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic is out of control, the economy remains in shambles and we learned once again that police officers can shoot a Black man in the back without much in the way of consequences.

And yet.

On Tuesday evening, not long after the polls had closed in Georgia, it started becoming clear that we may be in for a period of — what? Not normality. The radical right, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has properly suggested we label the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, won’t allow for that. But relative calm at least.

It may be no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the George Senate runoff elections was as crucial to our survival as a constitutional republic as the outcome of the presidential election two months ago. As of early this morning, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has defeated the Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, for one of the seats, and the other Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, appears likely to be declared the winner in his race against Sen. David Perdue.

With Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories comes control (barely) of the Senate. Though each party will hold 50 seats, the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, will be able to break tie votes. That would be a big deal in any case, but it looms even larger given the dangerous abyss into which the Republican Party has fallen.

At the liberal website Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes that “it allows Joe Biden to assemble a government. I think people have been underestimating the likelihood that a Republican senate would simply refuse to confirm major Biden appointees, forcing the President to try to wing stuff together with recess and vacancies act appointments that would themselves become tied up in the courts.”

We can’t underestimate what Biden will be up against once he’s sworn in. On Tuesday night I spent about an hour and a half watching Newsmax, which, along with OANN, has stolen a large chunk of the MAGA audience from Fox News because the journalists at Fox have remained at least somewhat tethered to reality.

Not long after the polls closed, Newsmax analyst Mark Halperin (remember him?) said that if the exit polls were “close to accurate,” then the Republicans would win. But an hour or so later, as it started to become clear that Republican turnout in Georgia wasn’t going to be enough to keep Perdue and Loeffler in office, the talking heads started to lay out the case that the results would be illegitimate.

For instance, Dick Morris (remember him?) took solace in figures that showed about 2 million early voters in Georgia had done so in person whereas just 1 million had voted by mail. “It’s a lot easier to fake mail-in voting than in-person voting,” he said, dumping a few buckets of poison into the well.

Another guest, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a leader of today’s rebellion against reality, actually called on the Senate not to seat Warnock and Ossoff even if they won. “It’s one thing for those ballots to be accurately counted; it’s another thing as to whether those ballots are legal,” he said, claiming without any evidence that there were “a massive number of illegal ballots in the system.”

Former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka (remember him?) tied the Senate race and the presidential election together by claiming “election fraud and quote unquote irregularities” and citing disproven allegations of votes being “pulled out from under tables.” Gorka also demonstrated a Trumpian facility for childish insults, calling Ossoff a “milquetoast Beto” and a “Justin Trudreau knockoff” and Warnock an “utter, utter radical.”

We can’t underestimate the effect of all this on the 40% of the public that remains in thrall to Trump and Trumpism. Whereas elite conservatives like Rich Lowry (“Republicans have likely lost control of the Senate, but will have the consolation prize of being able to marinate for hours tomorrow in delusional schemes”) and Tom Nichols (“the majority of the Republican Party and its apologists are advocating for the overthrow of an American election and the continued rule of a sociopathic autocrat”) rage against the president, Trump’s supporters have directed their own rage at the legitimately elected government of the United States.

Or as the pro-Trump conspiracy site Gateway Pundit puts it: “Pray for Vice President Pence to make the correct decision and save our nation from corrupt banana-republic elections that will undoubtedly be our future if this election is allowed to stand.”

Today’s attempted coup will end in failure. According to most reports, there will be more than enough Republican senators who’ll join with their Democratic colleagues to stop the madness. And if that doesn’t work, the Democratic House will put an end to it. But even with Republicans out of power in the House, the Senate and the presidency, we remain in a dangerous moment.

“America is in a precarious spot,” writes Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson. “But Americans have finally woken up. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and people are now speaking up, demanding that our leaders listen to us, and insisting that officials as well as ordinary Americans answer to the law.”

Crucial to navigating that future will be the role of the media. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen argues that much of the press would like nothing better than a return to the good old days — Democrats versus Republicans, balance and a retreat from the activism it embraced during the worst of the Trump presidency.

“Powerful forces favor a restoration,” Rosen writes. “It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.” He adds: “Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back.”

In theory, I agree with Rosen that the media can’t go back to the way things were. In practice, I’m not sure what that looks like. Already, I’ve seen pushback against normal journalistic vetting such as Politico’s recent story about the millions of dollars in corporate speaking fees earned by Biden’s choice for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen. I’m sorry, but that’s a perfectly fine story as long as we don’t make too much of it.

What I’d like to see is a refusal to take the Republicans’ bait on phony Democratic scandals (Hunter Biden, anyone?); a willingness to cover the Republicans in good faith when they act in good faith, but an equal willingness to denounce radical measures not based in reality; and an unwavering defense of democracy.

Fourteen more days.

Book review: Why listening to community voices could help revive local news

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.

Read the rest at The Arts Fuse. And talk about this review on Facebook.

Three questions still to be answered about the meltdown of the MIT Media Lab

Joi Ito. Photo (cc) 2017 by the MIT Media Lab.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.”

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.

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Now more than ever: Walter Lippmann and the need for reliable journalism

Walter Lippmann. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Previously published at The Arts Fuse.

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.

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