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The incorrigible New York Times

How did the editors not catch this? Or did they actually add it? Just gobsmackingly awful:

President Biden, perhaps Amtrak’s most famous advocate, announced $16.4 billion in funding for rail projects on Monday, exhibiting a business-as-usual approach as polls show him trailing former President Donald J. Trump one year before Election Day.

Speaking at a maintenance warehouse where Amtrak trains are serviced in Bear, Del., Mr. Biden made no mention of the polling from The New York Times and Siena College polls.

Instead, he offered familiar anecdotes about his days as a senator, when a conductor named Angelo would call him “Joey, baby!” and squeeze his cheeks as he made the 90-minute ride between Washington and his home in Wilmington, Del.

Mr. Biden also promoted the $1 trillion infrastructure law he signed into law two years ago, which included $66 billion for investments in rail systems.

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Friedman to Israel: Take a deep breath and don’t do this

When Thomas Friedman of The New York Times writes about Israel and the broader Middle East, he generally comes up with something worth paying attention to. So I recommend this excellent piece in today’s edition headlined “Israel Is About to Make a Terrible Mistake” (free link). He manages to encapsulate the immensely complicated dilemma over how Israel should avenge Hamas’ terrorist attacks without causing so much chaos that the world will be dealing with it for many years to come. Here’s the heart of it:

I believe that if Israel rushes headlong into Gaza now to destroy Hamas — and does so without expressing a clear commitment to seek a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority and end Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank — it will be making a grave mistake that will be devastating for Israeli interests and American interests.

It’s not a matter of going soft on Hamas; rather, it’s a matter of what’s in Israel’s best interests. Friedman is convinced that the Netanyahu government is ignoring the advice that President Joe Biden gave them and is on the verge of making a historic, tragic blunder.

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Mainstream media, elected officials feed misinformation in Israel-Hamas war

The war between Israel and Hamas has given rise to a cornucopia of misinformation and disinformation on social media — especially with Elon Musk’s mean, shrunken version of X/Twitter doing little to screen out the worst stuff. But we should keep in mind that several dangerously wrong stories have been reported or amplified by mainstream news sources and political figures.

The most significant is the explosion at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, a disaster that has reportedly claimed hundreds of  lives. Palestinian officials immediately blamed the blast on an Israeli rocket attack and, in the absence of any independent verification, news outlets were quick to report that claim as though it were fact. I’ll use The New York Times as an example, but it was hardly alone. According to the Internet Archive, the Times homepage published a headline on Tuesday at 2:25 p.m. that said, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” Over the next hour or so, a subhead appeared saying that Israel was urging “caution.” Then, finally, at 3:46 p.m., came a subhead that stated, “Israelis Say Misfired Palestinian Rocket Was Cause of Explosion.” (I’m using the time stamps from the Times’ live blog rather than the Internet Archive’s.)

The Times’ evolution played out on Threads as well. Threads posts are not time-stamped, and at the moment this says only “one day ago,” though it was clearly posted sometime in the afternoon on Tuesday: “Breaking News: An Israeli airstrike hit a Gaza hospital on Tuesday, killing at least 200 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, which said the number of casualties was expected to rise.” A short time later: “Update: At least 500 people were killed by an Israeli airstrike at a Gaza hospital, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.” Then, finally: “Update: The Israeli military said its intelligence indicated that a rocket that malfunctioned after it was launched by a Palestinian armed group was responsible for the explosion that killed hundreds of people at a Gaza City hospital.”

Screen image from Threads

Now, we still don’t know exactly what happened. But the weight of the evidence suggests that Israeli officials are correct in asserting that the missile was actually fired by Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas, and that it accidentally damaged the hospital. BBC News reported Wednesday that the evidence is “inconclusive” but added: “Three experts we spoke to say it is not consistent with what you would expect from a typical Israeli air strike with a large munition.” The independent investigative project Bellingcat cited a tweet by Marc Garlasco, a war-crimes investigator, who said, “Whatever hit the hospital in #Gaza it wasn’t an airstrike.”

The problem is that the initial incautious reports by the Times and other mainstream media, quoting Palestinian statements as though they were fact, clearly created a public narrative that Israel had committed a horrific war crime by bombing a hospital and killing hundreds of people. Indeed, two Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar, tweeted out the original unverified report.

Two other examples:

• The claim that Hamas terrorists beheaded Israeli babies has become so widespread that President Biden repeated it several days ago, and even appeared to say that he had seen photographic evidence. The White House had to walk that back. But though Hamas acted brutally in slaughtering civilians and taking hostages, no evidence has emerged for that particular incendiary assertion. The fact-checking website Snopes reports: “As we looked into the claim, we found contradictory reports from journalists, Israeli army officials, and almost no independent corroborations of the alleged war crime, leading to concerns among fact-checkers that such a claim may be premature or unsubstantiated.”

• There remains no evidence beyond an initial report by The Wall Street Journal that Iran was directly involved in planning and approving Hamas’ attack on Israel. This was an especially dangerous assertion since it could have led to a wider war — and still could if the Journal’s story ends up being true. At the moment, though, it appears that the Journal’s reliance on Hamas and Hezbollah sources were spreading misinformation, perhaps deliberately. Indeed, Max Tani of Semafor reported earlier this week that the Journal’s own Washington bureau had raised “concerns about the story” before it was published.

Correction: This post originally said that the hospital had been “obliterated,” but the evidence suggests that the damage fell well short of that.

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Mitt Romney’s horrifying tale shows why the future of democracy is so uncertain

Mitt Romney, right, with then-Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

I read The Atlantic’s excerpt from McKay Coppins’ new Mitt Romney biography on the train ride home Friday. It delivers the goods. I’ve never been a Romney fan, but I appreciate his willingness to stand up to Donald Trump and Trumpism when it really mattered.

I was also struck that, after Romney became an outcast within his own party, he preferred to work with conspiracy-minded loons like Sen. Ron Johnson over the hypocrites who defended Trump in public while sidling up to Romney in private to tell him they would love to denounce Trump, too, but they just couldn’t. (“There are worse things than losing an election,” Romney would tell them. “Take it from somebody who knows.”)

What is chilling, though, is that, as Romney tells it, Republicans who once indulged Trump in order to advance their own political ambitions later had a different, more elemental reason for defending Trump in public: they were afraid they and their families would be killed by Trump’s deranged supporters, whipped up into a fury by the maximum leader himself. Coppins writes:

Some of the reluctance to hold Trump accountable was a function of the same old perverse political incentives — elected Republicans feared a political backlash from their base. But after January 6, a new, more existential brand of cowardice had emerged. One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety. The congressman reasoned that Trump would be impeached by House Democrats with or without him — why put his wife and children at risk if it wouldn’t change the outcome? Later, during the Senate trial, Romney heard the same calculation while talking with a small group of Republican colleagues. When one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children. The senator eventually decided they were right.

Romney was paying $5,000 for security, and he understood that many of his colleagues couldn’t afford that. But this is horrifying, and it shows the near-impossibility of breaking up the Trump-Republican alliance. Moreover, it’s how we move from democracy to authoritarianism to fascism. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it Friday on the “PBS NewsHour”: “There are members who were going to vote to convict on impeachment, but were afraid that they or their families might get assassinated, and they knew their vote wouldn’t make a difference. We are way beyond the bounds of normal democratic governance, when that’s even on the minds of members of Congress.”

My fear is that Joe Biden’s presidency represents little more than an uneasy interregnum between Trump and whatever’s next. If Biden can win re-election, maybe that will give us four more years for passions on the extreme right — now a majority of the Republican Party — to cool off. From where we are standing today, though, I don’t see much chance of that happening.

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Candidates gang up on Ramaswamy because they just can’t stand his smug arrogance

Vivek Ramaswamy. Photo (cc) 2022 by Gage Skidmore.

Entertainment was hard to come by at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate. But to the extent that there was anything to savor, it came in the form of the attacks on Vivek Ramaswamy at the hands of Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie. What they needed to accomplish was to bury what was left of Ron DeSantis. Instead, they were so enraged by Ramaswamy that they focused their fire on him.

Ramaswamy was glib, smug, rude and arrogant. He also mouthed far-right talking points in a way that would do Donald Trump proud, coming out foursquare for everything bad, from coal to Russia. Although all eight candidates tried to duck a question about climate change (Haley was a wishy-washy exception), only Ramaswamy declared it to be a “hoax.” He alone would cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine, though DeSantis was heading in that direction.

Did Ramaswamy help or hurt himself? Who knows? I thought New York Times columnist David French put it well: “Everything I dislike about him, MAGA loves, and he looked more like Trump’s heir than DeSantis did.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo called Ramaswamy a “cocky little shit,” which wasn’t quite accurate: he’s actually pretty tall.

In case Ramaswamy is new to you, you might want to check out this profile in The New Yorker, written by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Ramaswamy, who made his fortune in biotech, has moved to the extreme right in recent years, something that hasn’t exactly endeared him to those who were once close to him. Kolhatkar writes:

I asked Ramaswamy if his burgeoning reputation as a conservative firebrand had taken a personal toll. He chose his words carefully. A family member no longer spoke to him, and he’d been ghosted by a close friend. Although he’d forged new relationships with conservatives, none of the connections had turned into friendships. “I feel like the public advocacy, or whatever you call what I’ve been doing in the last couple of years, has eroded more friendships than new friendships made up for it,” he said.

Being shunned because of your principles is one thing. Being shunned because of ambition is something else.

So who won? I thought the big winner was President Biden. Trump, too, I imagine, since he continues to dominate the Republican field and did not take part in Wednesday’s free-for-all. Other than that, I’d say Pence was the winner, sort of; he managed to get credit for standing up to Trump on Jan. 6 without being booed too loudly, as Chris Christie was, and he came across as a normal candidate — that is, if your idea of normal is an extremist who wants a nationwide ban on abortion. Another Times columnist, Ross Douthat, said of Pence’s performance: “Moral clarity, debating chops, a message frozen in amber in 1985 and a visceral hatred for Vivek Ramaswamy: It won’t get him the nomination but it made for some of the better theater of the night.” James Pindell of The Boston Globe gave Pence an A-plus.

A lot of people thought Haley did well, too. She projected as independent and even somewhat moderate, criticizing Trump for running up the debt. You’d think might hurt her chances of being chosen as Trump’s running mate, but she’s proven over and over that she’ll be whatever she thinks she needs to be.

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Tara Reade, who accused Biden of sexual assault, pops up in Russia

Tara Reade’s new home: The Kremlin. Photo (cc) 2015 by Larry Koester.

On Tuesday came the bizarre news that Tara Reade, who accused Joe Biden of past instances of sexual assault during the 2020 presidential campaign, had popped up in Russia, claiming she feared being imprisoned or killed. The Guardian reported that she had “defected”; The New York Times went with the less charged “moved.”

Women rarely lie about sexual assault, but there were reasons right from the start not to believe Reade’s claims. Among other things, the PBS NewsHour reported that the details Reade offered were almost certainly false, and Politico found that she had spent much of her adult life as a grifter. Below is a blog post that links to those stories.

Follow the money

Media Nation | May 16, 2020

Two in-depth reports Friday rendered what was left of Tara Reade’s credibility in tatters.

The more important was a story by the PBS NewsHour. Lisa Desjardins and Daniel Bush interviewed 74 former Joe Biden staff members, 62 of them women. And though they said Biden sometimes had trouble keeping his hands to himself (something Biden acknowledged and apologized for last year), they emphatically denied that they’d ever heard of him engaging in sexual assault.

“The people who spoke to the NewsHour,” they wrote, “described largely positive and gratifying experiences working for Biden, painting a portrait of someone who was ahead of his time in empowering women in the workplace.”

Crucially, an on-the-record source told them that there were problems with Reade’s job performance that may have led to her termination. And the place where the alleged assault took place was entirely out in the open, making it nearly impossible for Biden to have done what she claims without being seen.

Also Friday, Natasha Korecki reported for Politico that Reade has spent much of her adult life as a grifter, lying and cheating people out of money — but never, in the recollection of the people she interviewed, saying anything negative about Biden.

“Over the past decade,” Korecki wrote, “Reade has left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances in California’s Central Coast region who say they remember two things about her — she spoke favorably about her time working for Biden, and she left them feeling duped.”

In the weeks after I wrote about the Reade case for WGBH News, I’ve gone from thinking there was a reasonable chance that she was telling the truth to now believing it’s highly likely that she made the whole thing up.

But why? Could it have something to do with her weird praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin? What should we make of the fact that her lawyer, who’s representing her for free, is a Trump donor? Or the fact that another lawyer who’s acted on her behalf has ties to Russian propaganda operations?

Ultimately Reade’s story can’t be definitively proven or disproven, but the media have done a good job of laying out the facts and showing how far-fetched it is. Now we need to know who, if anyone, was behind what appears to be a classic political dirty trick. Keep digging.

Landmark case? In fact, Dominion’s libel suit against Fox News is pretty simple

White van labeled Fox News Channel

Photo (cc) 2011 by (vincent desjardins)

We’ve been told many times that the Dominion voting machine libel suit against Fox News could be a “landmark case.” I want to push back against that.

If Fox wins, then yes, it will be a landmark case, but that particular outcome seems unimaginable. That’s because we know from Fox’s own internal communications that top executives and hosts knew they were lying when they repeated the claims advanced by Donald Trump and his minions that Dominion’s machines stole votes from Trump and awarded them to Joe Biden.

In order to show libel, a plaintiff must prove that a media outlet published or broadcast false, defamatory statements about them. The Supreme Court’s 1964 Times v. Sullivan case added a third element for public officials who wish to win a libel suit: “actual malice,” which is defined as a knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth. Several years later, the actual malice standard was extended to public figures, including a corporation such as Fox.

This really shouldn’t be difficult. In the unlikely event that Fox wins, it would mean that actual malice as a legal concept no longer exists. In reality, Dominion v. Fox is a pretty ordinary case in the sense that it presents no new issues at all. Fox defamed Dominion with false claims and, in private conversations, admitted that they were lying. The network’s defense will be that it was merely reporting newsworthy statements — but it didn’t just report them, it promoted them, and its hosts agreed with them on the air.

It is, in a way, the flip side of Sarah Palin’s 2022 libel case against The New York Times, when it was obvious to any observer that the Times had simply made a careless error in claiming that the man who shot then-congresswoman Gabby Giffords and several others had been incited by a map put together by Palin’s policial action committee showing gunsights over several congressional districts, including Giffords’. In fact, there was no evidence that the mentally ill shooter was even aware of such a map. There was no actual malice, and Palin lost.

It’s hard to imagine that any combination of money awarded to Dominion as well as punitive damages will add up to any more than a rounding error for Fox. What I’d really like to see is for the jury to require Fox to apologize in prime time, over and over, for lying to its viewers. How about nothing but apologies for a week? Now, that would be some must-see TV.

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A feisty speech by a good and decent man kicks off the 2024 presidential campaign

Then-candidate Joe Biden campaigning in Nevada. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

The problem with the Republican lie that President Biden is frail and has lost his fastball — amplified all too often by our timid media — is that, on occasions like the State of the Union address, millions of Americans can see that he’s fine. More than fine.

Biden delivered an excellent speech last night, coming across as vigorous and feisty as someone decades younger and quite possibly trapping Republicans into promising that they won’t cut Social Security and Medicare — as they were threatening to do a few months ago, notwithstanding Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s shouts of “liar” when the president reminded them of it.

Writing at the liberal website Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall summed it up:

He lead [sic] them into a trap which they could only spring on themselves and they did so to a tee. I don’t know how else to describe it. He brutalized them in a bear hug of bipartisanship. He thanked them for their moment conversion and agreement not to cut Social Security.

Biden got energy from the angry and unhinged responses. Kevin McCarthy spent the second half of the speech trying to shush his members, the same feral radicals who tortured him for a week last month. The whole tableau spoke more than a thousand words.

It was beautiful.

The behavior by a number of Republicans in the chamber, led by Greene, would have been stunning just a few years ago, but we’ve gotten long past that. Two pundits from the center-right make that clear. First up: Amanda Carpenter at The Bulwark, a leading source of Never Trump conservative commentary:

Back in 2009, when South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” in the middle of an address by President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress, sensibilities were shocked. Wilson’s outburst became a days-long story, and he was formally reprimanded by the House.

Nowadays, though, the House Republican Conference has a whole contingent of Joe Wilsons: boorish loudmouths whose lack of impulse control is only matched by their desire for attention. Don’t hold your breath waiting for them to face a reprimand for their shouts and jeers last night. Biden encountered several “You lie!”-like objections without batting an eye or missing a line in his scripted remarks.

David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush put it this way:

In this hyper-polarized era, the goal of the survival-minded politician is not so much to offer grand visions as to expand his own coalition, even if only a little, while squeezing his opponents where it hurts most. Like a boxer trying to goad his antagonist into leaving open a vulnerable spot for a counterpunch, Biden’s plan was to invite Republicans to make dangerous mistakes. This was a speech not of lofty phrases but of cunning ploys; not one for the ages, but one that will reverberate long enough to make a difference in November 2024.

Finally, two excerpts from commentary on the farther right. Here’s the lead of today’s editorial in the Washington Examiner, headlined “A Banal Failure of a State of the Union”:

The best thing that can be said about President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union address last night is that a record-low number of people wasted their time watching it. It was a laundry list of nanny statism, promising that not even the tiniest detail of people’s lives will be free from federal interference — not “resort fees” nor “targeted advertising” on social media.

David Harsanyi writes at The Federalist:

Like Nero bragging about rebuilding Circus Maximus after burning it down, Joe Biden took to the podium tonight to take credit for solving a slew of problems he helped create.

Biden’s speech reminded me that, above all else, he is a good and decent man. I thought the content was excellent and his delivery nearly so. His 2024 re-election campaign is now under way — and, last night, it got off to a strong start.

Omnibus spending bill reportedly omits assistance for local news

The U.S. Capitol. Photo (cc) 2013 by Mark Fischer.

The $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that’s making its way through Congress reportedly contains nothing to ease the local news crisis. An emailed news bulletin from the trade publication Editor & Publisher, citing unnamed sources, reported this morning that both the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) and the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA) have been excluded from the bill.

For those of you who don’t follow these issues obsessively, let me unpack this a bit.

The JCPA would allow an antitrust exemption for news organizations so that they could bargain collectively with Google and Facebook for a share of their advertising revenues. You often hear news executives complain that the giant platforms are republishing their content without paying for it. That is a serious distortion. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Google and Facebook, which control about half the digital advertising market, benefit significantly from linking to and sharing news.

The LJSA would create three tax credits that would benefit local news organizations. The first would allow consumers to write off the cost of subscriptions. The second would provide a tax benefit to businesses for buying ads. The third would grant tax write-offs to publishers for hiring and retaining journalists. That last provision was included in President Biden’s Bill Back Better bill, which Senate Republicans, joined by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, killed last year.

The demise of the JCPA is not entirely bad news. I thought it might be worth giving it a try to see what the two sides might come up with. Still, there was a lot of merit to the argument made by critics like Chris Krewson, executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, that most of the revenues would be diverted to large legacy newspaper publishers — including those owned by corporate chain owners and hedge funds — rather than to community-based start-ups.

The LJSA, on the other hand, was more intriguing, even though it would also benefit legacy newspapers. For one thing, the tax credits could provide a real lifeline to small local news projects. For another, the third provision, for publishers, would reward the large chain owners only for good behavior — Gannett and Alden Global Capital could not tap into that credit if they keep laying off journalists.

I’m guessing that this is the end of the road for both proposals given that the Republicans will take over the House in the next few weeks. That’s not entirely a bad thing. As Ellen Clegg and I have found in our research at “What Works,” local news organizations across the country, from for-profit legacy newspapers to nonprofit digital start-ups, are finding innovative ways to continue serving their communities.

The economic challenges facing news organizations is real, but in many cases they can be managed with innovative thinking and committed local ownership.

Finally, here are a couple of “What Works” podcasts that will bring you up to speed.

Student debt relief was a good first step. Now we need systemic reform.

Tuition was surprisingly affordable during the Middle Ages

Much of the whining you hear about President Biden’s decision to cancel some student loan debt is coming from people who have no idea what has happened to the cost of a college education.

When I was attending Northeastern University in the 1970s (like many back then, I was the first in my family to graduate from college), the cost was trivial. Not only that, but editors at the student paper, The Northeastern News, received generous tuition stipends. Today, the paper, now known as The Huntington News, is independent, and the students get nothing for their hard work.

Not only did I graduate without debt, but I was also able to get my master’s in American history at Boston University by attending night school, paid for in full out of my crappy newspaper salary. It turned out to be the best investment I ever made: Years later, when I sought to return to Northeastern as a faculty member, the first question I was asked was if I had a master’s.

So I certainly don’t begrudge the relief more recent graduates are getting as a result of Biden’s action. If anything, many people will still find themselves deep in debt, though somewhat less than they are now. I do, however, think debt relief raises two questions that need to be answered.

• What about the role of colleges and universities, whose costs have risen far in excess of inflation during the past generation? Federal loan guarantees were part of that, as it gave them an incentive to compete on amenities rather than price. Shouldn’t we play some part in solving the problem? At the very least, maybe  institutions that fail to hold annual increases within a certain range should become ineligible for federal loans.

• What about future graduates? Their debt burden is going to be just as heavy, if not heavier. Are we setting ourselves up for round after round of debt forgiveness? Or might it be possible to construct a more equitable, sustainable system that doesn’t revolve around ever-rising costs, massive loans and calls for debt cancellation?

Those of us who work in higher education are well aware of the sacrifices our students and their families are making, and we often talk about what will happen after the bubble inevitably bursts. There are already some early signs, with young people seeing less value in college than was the case a few years ago. We need to change the way we do business.

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