Exploring the limits of free speech in nonprofit editorial sections

Photo (cc) 2015 by Edgar Zuniga Jr.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out the where the line is for free speech in the editorial sections of nonprofit news organizations. I know they can’t endorse political candidates lest they lose their nonprofit status, the result of a law rammed through the Senate by Lyndon Johnson back in the 1950s. And a few people have told me that nonprofits can’t endorse specific legislation, either.

But what else? When Ellen Clegg and I asked Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, on the “What Works” podcast if he’d considered taking the Times nonprofit, he said he hadn’t because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to write editorials. Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017.

Well, here’s a concrete example. The Salt Lake Tribune — the first major daily newspaper in the U.S. to become a nonprofit — recently ran a tough editorial holding state leaders to account for their failures in responding to COVID-19. It began:

That wan fluttering noise you hear coming from the direction of the Capitol building is the sound of the state of Utah waving the white flag of surrender in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s tragic. It’s disgraceful. And there is lots of blame to go around.

Naturally, the editorial led to death threats, as Erik Wemple reports in The Washington Post. Although the threats came after Fox News host Sean Hannity denounced the Tribune for advocating vaccine mandates, what Hannity said, in Wemple’s recounting, wasn’t even remotely a call for violence or threats. It’s just America in 2022.

The death threats notwithstanding, the Tribune’s editorial is an indication that nonprofits can in fact take a strong editorial stand on matters of public interest, including governmental actions, without risking their tax-exempt status. They should be able to endorse candidates and advocate for legislation if they so choose. But at least they are not entirely prohibited from exercising their freedom of speech.

With Chicago Public Media’s acquisition, the Sun-Times will soon go nonprofit

Photo (cc) 2011 by Seth Anderson

There’s been some confusion over Chicago Public Media’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, a tabloid that is the city’s number-two daily newspaper. For example, The New York Times reported that “the ownership structure would be similar to that of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a big-city paper that the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism has run since 2016.”

Well, no. The Inquirer is a for-profit newspaper owned by a nonprofit organization. If the Inquirer itself were a nonprofit, it would be barred from endorsing political candidates. In fact, the paper continues to endorse candidates and published an “Endorsement Guide” as recently as last fall.

What’s happening in Chicago is different. The ownership of the Sun-Times will be converted to nonprofit with its own board, according to WBEZ, the broadcast arm of Chicago Public Media. The Sun-Times itself reports that the paper will “convert from for-profit to nonprofit status.” That would make it the second major daily paper to become a nonprofit, following The Salt Lake Tribune. Recently the executive editor of the Tribune, Lauren Gustus, reported that the paper is healthy and growing under nonprofit ownership.

As I mentioned, there is one disadvantage to nonprofit ownership: news organizations can’t endorse candidates or advocate for certain legislative actions without endangering their tax-exempt status. Of course, there are plenty observers who see that as a feature rather than a bug. For instance, David Boardman, chair of the Lenfest Institute, greeted the news that the Sun-Times will no longer be able to endorse with this:

But endorsements can be useful, especially in smaller races to which voters may be paying minimal attention. Besides, it’s an infringement on free speech. Such a rule didn’t even exist until Lyndon Johnson rammed it through the Senate in order to silence political opponents back home in Texas.

In any event, with Alden Global Capital disemboweling the long-dominant Chicago Tribune, the announcement that WBEZ and the Sun-Times will soon be covering the region with a combined newsroom is good news. And it shows that people and institutions are willing to step up when market failure undermines local news coverage.

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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More on why Trump is right to want to eliminate nonprofit speech restrictions

Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

President Trump last week promised to repeal a law that prohibits tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates. As he put it at the National Prayer Breakfast in his characteristically bombastic style, he would “totally destroy” the ban, pushed through Congress in 1954 by Sen. Lyndon Johnson.

The proposal, predictably, was met with opposition by many observers, who argued that such a move would threaten the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

But religious leaders — and everyone — should be able to speak freely without fearing that their words will cost them money. Somehow the republic managed to survive until 1954 without those free-speech rights being abridged. There is no reason to think that restoring those rights will be our downfall today.

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

Trump wants to ‘totally destroy’ restrictions on nonprofit speech. I agree.

President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain types of political speech lest they lose their tax exemptions. The amendment was pushed through Congress in 1954 by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was under attack by several nonprofit groups back in Texas.

Religious organizations have been complaining about the restriction for years. In 2009 I wrote a commentary in The Guardian agreeing with them, though my main concern was that the amendment prevented nonprofit news organizations from endorsing political candidates. Given that nonprofit news is becoming an increasingly important part of the media landscape, it seemed (and seems) unwise to ban such projects from engaging in what traditionally has been a vital service to their communities. I argued:

Would this mean greater influence for the likes of religious hatemongers such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins? Yes. But the whole idea behind free speech is it’s for everyone, not just those with whom you agree.

I also wrote critically about the Johnson Amendment in my 2013 book “The Wired City,” much of which was an examination of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.

I have not changed my mind. And thus I applaud our orange leader for standing up for free speech. Leaders of nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should not have to fear that if they speak out they’ll literally have to pay a penalty.

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Joe Scarborough doesn’t know much about history

Joe Scarborough
Joe Scarborough

If you’re going to try something as cheeky as letting cable blowhard Joe Scarborough review a serious book about political history, you should at least make sure you’ve got a safety net in place. But the New York Times Book Review doesn’t even bother, letting Scarborough step in it repeatedly in his review of Jeffrey Frank’s “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage.”

You can hear the mellifluous  strains of Sam Cooke in the very first two sentences:

It may be the closest of political relationships, but it rarely ends well. Vice President Thomas Jefferson challenged President John Adams for the top spot in the vicious campaign of 1800.

There are two possibilities to ponder as we consider this remarkable lead. The first is that Scarborough doesn’t realize the Constitution originally stipulated that the candidate who received the most votes from the Electoral College would become president and that the person who came in second would become vice president. Perhaps that’s too much math for the famously innumerate Scarborough.

The second possibility is that Scarborough knows but doesn’t care, because he thought it sounded good to suggest that, right from the earliest days of the republic, the partnership between the president and his number two was somehow destined to go bad.

The reality, of course, is that Adams and Jefferson were bitter rivals and ran against each other in the 1796 campaign. Adams won and Jefferson came in second, sentencing both of them to a partnership that neither wanted. The possibility of such an outcome was abolished when the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804.

Scarborough’s more serious lapse comes in the second paragraph:

Frank, a former editor at both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, examines how Ike’s cool nature and detached management style left Richard Nixon insecure and embittered through the remainder of his political career.

Now, I haven’t read Frank’s book, so I’ll accept that Scarborough is simply reporting what Frank wrote — with a fair amount of exaggeration and oversimplification, I suspect. But really. If Frank truly believes that the notoriously neurotic, paranoid Nixon got that way because Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t nice to him, that’s revisionist history with a vengeance. It’s one thing to suggest that Eisenhower played to Nixon’s insecurities; it’s quite another to assert that he was responsible for them. For Scarborough to accept that uncritically is a failure of the first order.

Scarborough even compounds it, writing, “Like Lyndon Johnson’s after him, much of Nixon’s pathos sprang from his painful contemplation of his boss’s public slights.” Seriously? As anyone who’s read Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power” knows, Johnson, like Nixon, suffered from a world-class case of insecurity long before he ever met John Kennedy. The truth is the opposite of what Scarborough claims: both Nixon and Johnson were uniquely unsuited to suffer the slights that are inherent to the vice presidency long before they assumed the office.

Strike three, and Scarborough is out:

A fascinating subplot in Frank’s story details Nixon’s role in pushing the administration on the issue of civil rights. Long criticized as the author of the Republican Party’s racially tinged “Southern strategy,” Nixon is shown by Frank to be a determined advocate for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, as well as a trusted ally of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson.

“Long criticized”? Well, yes. Here the reviewer’s obligation is to tell us how Frank traces Nixon’s devolution from a liberal on civil rights in the 1950s to a race-baiting panderer — a cleaned-up version of George Wallace — in his successful campaign for the presidency in 1968. And if Frank fails to document that devolution, Scarborough needs to say that. Instead, Scarborough leaves us with the fantasy that Nixon is a forgotten champion of civil rights who has somehow been unfairly castigated ever since.

Overall, a predictably poor performance. What was the New York Times thinking?

Photo (cc) by Mark Mathosian and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

How Kennedy and Obama are alike, for good and for ill

Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961

I’m most of the way through Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the latest in his series of Lyndon Johnson biographies. And I’ve been struck by his description of John F. Kennedy’s governing style, and of the similarities to President Obama.

What they share is a daunting intelligence; level-headedness in moments of confusion and  anxiety, which served them in good stead when high-stakes foreign-policy decisions had to be made quickly (the Cuban missile crisis, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound); and the ability to give a terrific speech, undermined to some degree by their aloof detachment.

The downside? Kennedy comes across as utterly clueless in working the levers of power with Congress, a failing he shares with Obama. Yes, it often appears that the Republicans are going to say no to Obama regardless of what he proposes. But Caro describes a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in the early 1960s that was no less intractable than the Tea Party Republicans of today.

Kennedy, Caro writes, concluded that working with Congress was hopeless as he watched his tax-cut bill and civil-rights legislation go nowhere. But when Johnson became president, he engaged in a combination of cajoling, flattery and threats that he mastered in the 1950s as Senate majority leader. What Kennedy had seen as the pragmatic acceptance of reality turned out to be a rationalization of his own shortcomings.

Could Obama have gotten more than he has from Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor? It seems unlikely. But given Bob Woodward’s description of the president’s hapless dealings with the Republican leadership, perhaps a leader more willing to engage with the opposition could have had better results.

Not to get carried away. It’s hard to imagine a better schmoozer in the White House than Bill Clinton. Yet his tax plan was approved without a single Republican vote — and on health care, Obama succeeded where Clinton failed. (I enjoyed Clinton’s speech last week as much as anyone, but his invocation of the 1990s as a time of bipartisan cooperation was pure fiction. I assume the Big Dog hasn’t forgotten that he was impeached for his personal behavior.)

Still, it’s interesting to think about how the past four years might have been different if Obama was a little less JFK and a little more LBJ.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, from the U.S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.