An incoherent look at Biden’s popularity

President Biden. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Is President Biden historically unpopular? Or is he simply experiencing a drop-off that’s similar to what many of his predecessors have gone through?

Nate Cohn of The New York Times tries his hand at analyzing Biden’s popularity — and I don’t know what he’s saying. Consider this:

The president’s approval ratings have sunk into the low-to-mid 40s, putting him into rather lonely historical company. In the era of modern polling, only Donald J. Trump had a lower approval rating at this early stage of his term.

Whoa! That’s not good. But then there’s this:

Many presidents have won re-election after watching their ratings fall to similar depths during their first two years in office.

And this:

Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all saw their ratings sink as low as Mr. Biden’s are today, before ultimately recovering to win re-election.

Cohn is a numbers guy, and I regard him as one of the more reliable journalists at the Times. But this is just incoherent.

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

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

Previously published at GBH News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week’s members newsletter: The wayward Times, Otis Redding and more

Otis Redding. Photo in the public domain.

Tomorrow’s Media Nation members newsletter includes some thoughts on The New York Times’ appalling story about Joe Biden’s grief, a round-up of the week’s posts, a Celtics-friendly photo and some music from the great Otis Redding. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.

What the media are getting wrong about Biden and Afghanistan

Photo (cc) 2011 by the U.S. Army

Previously published at GBH News.

The United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan has finally come to its painful conclusion. “America’s Longest War Ends as Last Troops Leave Afghanistan” proclaimed The New York Times home page Monday evening.

There is, however, one dimension to the conflict that is still being fought — the role of the media in reporting on President Joe Biden’s management, or mismanagement, of the final chaotic and deadly weeks. Surely, many journalists said, Biden could have ensured a more dignified exit than a mad crush at Hamid Karzai International Airport, with desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from transport planes, culminating in last week’s terrorist attack.

Increasingly, though, others have been making the case that, once Biden decided to end American involvement in Afghanistan once and for all, there was no alternative to the monumental ugliness that played out on our TV screens.

“Biden does not deserve the cheap shots that critics have taken at him when they postulate that his administration screwed up what would otherwise have been an orderly withdrawal,” writes Daniel McCarthy, a vociferous Biden critic and a conservative, in The Spectator World. “Even if the withdrawal had been much better executed, as indeed it should have been, it would still have been a disgusting spectacle, a ripe occasion for media posturing and partisan sniping.”

The end — or a least a temporary pause — of the liberal-leaning mainstream media’s honeymoon with Biden can be traced to systemic flaws in the way that the press covers Washington. Three of those flaws have been on vivid display in recent weeks.

• First, there is the media’s primordial need for balance — for treating Democrats and Republicans as if they are both legitimate actors even though the Democrats, for all their flaws, continue to act as a normal political party while the Republicans have descended into authoritarianism and lies. The media cling to both-sides-ism despite four years of a raging sociopath in the White House, an attempted insurrection by his supporters, and dangerous denialism about COVID-19.

Thus, after five years of harshly negative coverage of Donald Trump (negative coverage that he richly deserved), you can almost hear the press breathe a collective sigh of relief that it can finally go after Biden and even up the score.

Here’s a data point that shows how ingrained this is. Last Friday, Amna Nawaz, filling in as anchor of the “PBS NewsHour,” noted in a conversation with political analysts Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks that a number of Republicans have criticized Biden over his handling of the war.

“It really does run the spectrum of Republicans,” she said. “You have everyone from Sen. Ben Sasse, to Sen. Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, President Trump.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene? The QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist from Georgia who continues to defend the insurrectionists? Well, she’s a duly elected member of Congress, and according to the both-sides formula, she needs to be normalized. It’s crazy, but that’s the way the game is played. Too bad it’s not a game.

• Second, maybe it really is a game. Because, in too many cases, the Washington press corps glides past the substance of an issue and wallows in the political implications. Partly it’s because politics is what they know and are most comfortable with. Partly it’s a way to avoid taking sides by focusing instead on who’s winning and who’s losing.

The caricature version of this type of pundit is political analyst Chris Cillizza of CNN. Last week, several days before the terrorist attack, Cillizza wrote a piece that dwelled entirely on the political ramifications of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, reveling in polling numbers and in what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen derides as the “savvy” style of political journalism.

“Biden’s bet,” Cillizza writes, “is that while Afghanistan is top-of-mind for most voters right now, it will fade as a priority — as foreign policy often does — when it is no longer the lead story in the news every day. That if Americans get out safely, that the public will lose interest in what’s happening in a faraway country and return to domestic issues like the state of the economy and our ongoing battle against COVID-19.”

Hey, it’s all politics, right?

• Third, too many establishment journalists, supposedly paid to cover the news rather than express their opinions, were in favor of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and opposed to Biden’s decision to end it once and for all.

“Much of the problems with the press coverage lie in the coziness between foreign policy elites and reporters who rely on them for information,” writes Alex Shephard in a perceptive New Republic piece. “The biases of interventionists and hawks flow frictionlessly into news coverage, treating the exit from Afghanistan as a capitulation and outrage, rather than as one — and perhaps the best — of a number of bad options.”

A telling example is Peter Baker’s widely criticized “news analysis” for The New York Times in which he quotes George W. Bush alum Meghan O’Sullivan and Gen. David Petraeus to argue that Biden could have achieved a different outcome. Describing Biden’s own framing of the options he had before him as “either complete withdrawal or endless escalation,” Baker writes, “Critics consider that either disingenuous or at the very least unimaginative, arguing that there were viable alternatives, even if not especially satisfying ones, that may not have ever led to outright victory but could have avoided the disaster now unfolding in Kabul and the provinces.”

Another example plays out on television, where a variety of former officials from the George W. Bush administration and former generals have been given air time to criticize Biden, notwithstanding their direct role in sucking us into what was, until recently, an endless war.

There is one other factor that needs to be considered when analyzing media coverage, and that’s the asymmetric role played by the mainstream media and the right-wing propaganda machine headed by Fox News.

As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, Democrats and liberals can’t always count on sympathy from the mainstream because journalists want to be seen as skeptical and even-handed. Fox, on the other hand, is going to espouse a mindless pro-Republican, pro-Trump line no matter what the issue, even if it is exactly the opposite of the line it took a week earlier. At moments like this, the entire weight of the media is coming down on Biden, whereas Republicans can count on Fox being in their corner even in the worst of times.

“Even the most dishonest, incompetent, and scandal-ridden Republican presidency imaginable — which more or less describes the one we just had — will still have a media environment divided almost equally between scorching criticism and obsequious fawning,” Chait writes, adding: “In recent days, CNN and MSNBC looked a lot like Fox News, all hyping chaos in Afghanistan 24/7. That is the kind of comprehensive media hostility Trump never had to worry about.”

Now, none of this means that critical coverage of Biden was entirely misplaced. Few presidents have ever come into office with his depth of foreign-policy experience and, seven months in, he’s no longer a new president. We’ve all seen reports that U.S. intelligence officials believed the Afghan government could hang on for a year or two before its inevitable collapse. Surely a more orderly withdrawal could have been planned if they had been right. Why was Biden so seemingly unaware that his own advisers didn’t know what they were talking about? What is he doing about it?

Last Friday, on “Washington Week,” host Yamiche Alcindor replayed Biden’s embarrassing answer to her question earlier this summer that there would be no repeat of the rooftop evacuation that marked the end of the Vietnam War. Biden was right — what happened in Kabul was considerably worse.

But one of Alcindor’s panelists, Ayesha Rascoe of NPR, made an important point that has too often been overlooked by the media in its eagerness to pillory the president: “I do think this is an American tragedy, though. This is 20 years. This is four administrations. This is not just on the Biden administration.”

Indeed. The war in Afghanistan was a generation-long tragedy. Bush could have launched a targeted attack aimed at capturing or killing Osama bin Laden rather than a full-scale war to remake Afghan society. Barack Obama could have declared victory and pulled out after bin Laden was killed.

Instead, it was left to Trump to question our ongoing commitment and Biden to bring it to an end. That doesn’t mean Biden got everything right and shouldn’t be subjected to tough scrutiny. It does mean that our flawed media system was inadequate to the moment — and that we need to think about how we can do better.

Vietnam and Afghanistan: Two essays, one nonsensical, one filled with wisdom

U.S. soldier in Vietnam. Photo (cc) 1971 by Bruno Barbey.

Two essays, one in The New York Times and one in The Boston Globe, compare the disastrous, tragic war in Vietnam to the disastrous, tragic war in Afghanistan. One is based on nonsensical analogies. The other puts both conflicts in their proper perspective.

I’ll begin with the bad. Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, writing in the Times, tries to make the case that the grotesque lies Lyndon Johnson told in order to escalate our involvement in Vietnam are somehow comparable to President Biden’s handling of the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. The headline — “To Save His Presidency, Biden Must Tell the Truth About Afghanistan” — is worse than the essay, but the essay is bad enough.

Kazin’s piece is based on the premise that “the last time a war blew up in the face of a Democratic president, it derailed his domestic agenda and stalled the most ambitious social reforms of a generation.” Yet Johnson pulled us deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War, to the point where it overwhelmed his presidency. Biden has ended our involvement in Afghanistan. It’s been awful to watch, and no doubt it could have been handled better. But he’s done what three presidents before him wouldn’t do, and there are no signs that the public wanted us to stay.

And yes, Johnson and his administration lied repeatedly about the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, used as an excuse to go all-in, and lied repeatedly about our progress. As Kazin himself concedes, there is nothing comparable going on with Biden. He writes:

Mr. Biden made a decent start at such truth-telling during his speech this week. But he should give a fuller explanation of why his administration failed to prepare for a Taliban victory that, according to years of intelligence reports, was quite likely.

The fall of Afghanistan just happened. Of course we’re going to learn more in the weeks and months to come. It’s obvious to everyone that one interview with George Stephanopoulos isn’t going to be the end of it.

By contrast, the Globe piece, H.D.S. Greenway, makes the considerably more solid argument that our failed wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan had certain similarities — a misguided mission to build pro-Western democracies in places that called for a different solution, an obstinate refusal to learn about the cultures in which we had immersed ourselves, and rampant corruption on the part of our allies. Greenway, a former Globe editorial page editor and longtime foreign correspondent, concludes:

The tragedy is that America really had no interest in either Vietnam or Afghanistan for themselves. We went into Vietnam to fight communism and into Afghanistan to fight terrorists. Over the years, mission creep took over, and we thought we could bring forth democracy in our image out of the barrel of a gun.

The proper analogy to LBJ is not Biden; it’s George W. Bush, who could have saved us from two decades of anguish after 9/11 if he’d launched a limited mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and had stayed out of Iraq. Barack Obama should have pulled out after bin Laden was killed. I’ll give Donald Trump a tiny bit of credit for at least talking about ending the war.

But it’s Biden who did it. Like Gerald Ford in 1975, Biden watched the U.S.-backed regime collapse and had the maturity and good judgment not to try to stop it. It was over. It seems clear that there were intelligence failures that prevented us from getting as many people out as we could have, and there’s no doubt that Biden’s going to be asked some tough questions.

Regardless of what Kazin thinks, though, the fate of Biden’s presidency does not depend on Afghanistan.

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

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

Previously published at GBH News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

How minority rule is turning the U.S. into an undemocratic country

Photo (cc) 2014 by the National Museum of American History

This essay was first published in the Media Nation member newsletter. To become a member for $5 a month, please click here.

Like many of us, I worry about the state of our democracy. I write about it from time to time, but what concerns me especially is that it’s almost impossible to see any way out of our dilemma. That’s because we need systemic reform in order to move toward democracy. Not only is it in the interest of Republicans to oppose that reform, but there’s also no way of overcoming their opposition.

Obviously a lot of attention has been focused on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to getting rid of the filibuster, which means that President Joe Biden won’t be able to pass any of his non-budget priorities through a simple majority. But we all know the problem goes deeper than that, because the Constitution is heavily tilted toward the small-population states, which are overwhelmingly Republican.

At the presidential level, we need to get rid of the Electoral College, a vestige of slavery that resulted in the elections of George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 even though they lost the popular vote. Yes, the Electoral College has always been with us. But before Bush, the last time a candidate was elected president despite losing the popular vote was in 1888. Because of shifting demographics, such outcomes have become increasingly likely.

Nor is the problem solely at the presidential level. The 50 Republican senators represent just 43.5% of the electorate, according to calculations by the Daily Kos, whereas the 50 Democratic senators represent 56.5%. That’s an enormous gap, yet between the filibuster’s requirement of 60 votes to move forward on anything and the small-state advantage, Chuck Schumer might as well hand his gavel over to Mitch McConnell.

The House is at least theoretically democratic since districts are drawn on the basis of population. But partisan gerrymandering has resulted in Republicans having more seats to which they should be entitled. That will certainly prove to be a factor in the midterm elections, when the Republicans will in all likelihood regain their majority.

And I haven’t even mentioned Republican efforts across the country to pass voter-suppression laws that would disproportionately affect people of color.

This state of affairs would be bad enough if Republicans were committed to our democratic system. But we can see that they’re not, and their willingness to repeat the Big Lie that Trump won re-election last fall has become a loyalty test within the party.

We can all think of ways to solve these problems, but even to write about them seems like an exercise in futility. The Republicans would block any changes that would diminish their power. And we will continue to move deeper into minority rule.

It’s time for the feds to stop hassling and spying on the press

FBI headquarters. Photo (cc) 2008 by zaimoku_woodpile.

Previously published at GBH News.

It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.

Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.

Fortunately, USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, took a principled stand and fought the subpoena. On Saturday, the FBI backed down. There’s already little enough privacy on the internet without having to worry about the possibility that government officials will be looking over our shoulders as we’re reading.

We are in the midst of a systematic assault on the media’s role in holding the powerful to account. And it’s long past time for our elected officials to do something about it by passing legislation rather than relying on assurances by President Joe Biden that he’s ending these abuses. After all, Biden’s assurances can be undone by the next president with the flick of a pen. We need something stronger and more stable.

Barely a month ago I wrote about the revelation that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records. I observed that Trump’s actions were in line with a long string of presidential attacks on the media, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

Since then, the revelations have come at a dizzying pace. In addition to the USA Today subpoena, which strikes me as especially egregious since it targets readers rather than journalists, there have been at least two other noteworthy instances of abuse:

• In late May, CNN reported that the Trump administration had secretly obtained 2017 email and phone records of Barbara Starr, a longtime reporter for the network. The period in question was June 1 to July 31, 2017.

• In a particularly noxious abuse of the government’s power, The New York Times reported several days ago that the Justice Department had subpoenaed Google for the email records of four Times reporters — and that, though the inquiry had begun under former President Donald Trump, it continued under Biden. As recently as March, the Justice Department obtained a gag order prohibiting Google from informing the Times. That order was later amended so that a few top officials at the Times could be told, but not executive editor Dean Baquet.

“It is urgent that we hear from the attorney general about all three Trump-era records seizures, including the purported reasoning behind them and the rationale for not notifying the journalists in advance,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement released last week. “The goal must be to ensure that such abuses never occur again.”

Compounding the problem is the widely misunderstood belief that government officials are violating the First Amendment. For instance, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this past Sunday, Adam Goldman, one of the four Times reporters targeted in the Google probe, said, “The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. has a history of trampling on the First Amendment, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised. They treat the media, they treat newspapers like drug gangs.”

In fact, over the past century the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment in such a way that the protections for news gathering are exceedingly weak.

Protections for publication and broadcast are strong, which is why the press has been able to report on secret stolen documents — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden files — with few concerns about facing prosecution.

But the court has ruled that journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources. And with regard to the current string of spying revelations, the court has held repeatedly that journalists enjoy no special rights that would not be available to ordinary citizens.

President Biden recently pledged to end the practice of seizing reporters’ records, saying the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” Some observers questioned whether he actually meant it, since he’d be breaking not just with Trump’s abuses but with longstanding practice. That, in turn, led press secretary Jen Psaki to assure journalists that Biden planned to follow through on his pledge.

But what a president does, a future president can undo. To guarantee that the press will be able to perform its watchdog role, we need a federal shield law so that reporters won’t be compelled to reveal their confidential sources. Such protections — either by law or by court decision — are already in place in 49 states, with the sole exception being Wyoming.

We also need legislation that prevents the government from secretly spying on journalists’ online activities — and on readers’ activities as well.

No doubt opponents will insist that the government needs to be able to spy in order to keep us safe. But the Post, CNN and Times cases appear to involve the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to learn more about the origins of the Russia probe, including the activities of former FBI Director James Comey. The USA Today case did involve a much more serious matter. But after dropping its demands, the FBI told the BBC that “intervening investigative developments” made the information unnecessary.

Which is nearly always the case. Rarely does the government’s desire to interfere with the press’ role involve a situation that’s literally a matter of life or death. And the law can accommodate those rare instances.

In general, though, the government should go about its business without compromising the independence or freedom of the press.

Why it matters: Tracking the media’s dismissal of the Wuhan lab theory

Illustration by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Previously published at GBH News.

Howard Kurtz was in high dudgeon. The Fox News media critic opened his Sunday program, “Media Buzz,” this past weekend by blasting the press for dismissing the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China. That possibility is suddenly very much on the table, and President Joe Biden has ordered an investigation.

“It was a whack-job theory, right? It was Looney Tunes. It was trashy Trump talk, surely not worthy of serious journalistic attention,” Kurtz said. He added: “If President Trump said it, the media dismissed it. If conservatives embraced it, liberal pundits mocked it. This just speaks volumes about our media establishment. Now, nothing’s been proven, but the circumstantial evidence is growing. Will there be any soul-searching about what amounted to media malpractice? Don’t hold your breath.”

Kurtz’s monologue oversimplified what we know, but he was largely correct. In fact, the media sloppily mashed together two different stories about Wuhan — a legitimate line of inquiry that the virus had accidentally escaped from the lab and a conspiracy theory that Chinese scientists at the lab were developing COVID-19 as a bioweapon.

As a result, with just a few lonely exceptions, the mainstream press over the course of the past 15 months has dismissed any suggestion that COVID-19 came from the lab as so ludicrous that it was unworthy of coverage. The media’s credibility is taking yet another hit — this one entirely legitimate — at a moment when it is already at an all-time low. And their “shameful dereliction of duty,” as conservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen put it, may make it that much harder to persuade Trump supporters to get over their skepticism about vaccinations.

The media’s dismissive attitude toward the lab-leak theory was grounded in their distrust — often warranted — of anything that came out of President Donald Trump’s mouth. After all, during the course of the pandemic Trump dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19 repeatedly, pushed unproven, potentially dangerous remedies like hydroxychloroquine, and even suggested at one memorable press briefing that injecting bleach might help.

So when Trump would use racist terms like the “China virus” in referring to COVID-19, the media were already primed to accept the consensus view touted by Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization that the disease had, in fact, jumped from bats to humans in China and from there spread throughout the world.

Indeed, the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a Wuhan lab came to be seen as so thoroughly discredited that Facebook began taking down posts about it on the grounds that it was misinformation. The social-media giant reversed itself recently.

A few journalists, including Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, kept the lab-leak theory alive. Rogin exploded on Saturday with a bitter tweet complaining that most mainstream reporters “actively crapped all over it for over a year while pretending to be objective.”

The tide finally started to turn when a pair of former New York Times reporters, first Nicholas Wade and then Don McNeil, wrote several weeks ago that they had come to regard the possibility of a lab leak as being as plausible as the bats-to-humans theory.

“I now agree with Nick’s central conclusion: We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic. We may never know,” McNeil wrote. “But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.”

Matthew Yglesias, a prominent member of the Substackerati, has offered what I think is the most useful and detailed analysis of what went wrong from a journalistic point of view. He traces much of it to inept reporting about U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, who made some provocative statements early on about the possibility of a lab leak. Cotton is well-known as a China hawk, and pretty soon the media were falsely claiming that Cotton had touted the bioweapons fantasy, starting with a sensationalized account in Business Insider and then spreading from Politico and into the mainstream.

“At this point,” Yglesias wrote, “Cotton had achieved what’s really the greatest achievement possible for a Republican Party politician — he was unfairly maligned by the MSM.”

Also getting at an important part of what went wrong is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, who points to Twitter as the place where mainstream journalists reinforced their views, making it that much harder to re-examine the lab-leak theory.

“Media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis was a debacle, and a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter,” Chait said, calling the platform “a petri dish of tribalism and confirmation bias.”

So where does all this leave us? I’ll end where I began — with Howard Kurtz. Yes, he’s a conservative, and yes, he’s on Fox News. But he’s also a serious observer of the media who spent years at The Washington Post and CNN. His analysis can’t be easily dismissed. And I think he’s correct that animus toward Trump played a huge role in the media’s consensus that the lab-leak explanation for COVID was propaganda put out by the Trumpist right to deflect attention away from Trump’s numerous failures.

There’s a context that can’t be ignored, of course. Trump lied constantly. His horrendous mismanagement of the pandemic might go down as the greatest failure of any American president — unless you want to count his failure to abide by the results of a democratic election. It’s not difficult to see why journalists decided to accept Fauci’s word on the origins of the pandemic.

But they were wrong. The reality is that we don’t know where COVID-19 came from. The bats-to-humans explanation might be right. The lab possibility might be right. There’s a good chance that we’ll never know.

The whole point of journalism is to seek truth and report it. We failed to do that in this instance. And it ought to remind us of why we need to go about our jobs with humility and an open mind.