I love this profile of Keith Kelly, who recently retired as the New York Post’s media columnist. The Post is a toxic-waste pit, but Kelly enjoyed a well-earned reputation for accuracy. And pugnacity. The Kelly anecdotes in Shawn McCreesh’s New York Times profile are gold, but McCreesh’s own writing pulls you in as well. For instance:
Mr. Kelly came up in an age when a handful of glamorous editors in glittering towers told the country how to eat, think and dress. Today’s media landscape is an artless and unsexy place by comparison, a lowveld of SPACs and substacks. Newsletters badly in need of editing lard inboxes, while journalists spend their days flinging mud on Twitter.
Vice President Kamala Harris made history Wednesday night just by sitting behind President Biden during his joint address to Congress. As the understudy to our oldest president, Harris may well be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 if Biden decides not to seek re-election.
And Harris, who is not just the first female vice president but also the first Black person and Asian American to fill that role, is driving the right crazy. Back in 2019, when she was running her own presidential campaign, the main critique of her was that she was too conventional and too close to law enforcement. Now the right-wing media echo chamber portrays her as the fifth member of the Squad.
The latest attack on Harris backfired in an unusually spectacular manner, and illustrates the corrosive effect that the Murdoch media are having in this country.
On Saturday, Murdoch’s New York Post devoted its cover story to a report that immigrant children at the border were being given goodie bags that included taxpayer-purchased copies of Harris’ children’s book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere.”
The story immediately became fodder for Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. But the only evidence was a photo of one copy of the book, and the tale quickly unraveled — though that didn’t stop the Post, in a follow-up, from claiming that “thousands” of copies were distributed.
Then, on Tuesday, we received a rare moment of clarity. Laura Italiano, the Post reporter who wrote the story, tweeted that she had resigned. “The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point,” she wrote. Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times has all the details.
The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point.
Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, then you’re thinking that this happens all the time. One part of the Murdoch media empire runs with something false, exaggerated or, at the very least, unverified; other parts of the empire amplify it; and we have a full-blown fake scandal about Democrats on our hands. (Note: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. See below.)
Last fall, for instance, in what was surely the lamest attempt at an October surprise ever, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon attempted to feed a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop to Fox News. Taking the sensible position that the story couldn’t be verified, Fox’s news division actually passed on it — only to see it pop up in the New York Post.
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But not before some internal hand-wringing, as the Times’ Katie Robertson reported. The Post reporter who wrote most of the story refused to let his byline be put on it since he was afraid it would blow up, and several others declined as well. But Fox News, whose journalists had enough scruples not to take the story, recycled it endlessly on its opinionated talk shows, running “nearly 25 and a half hours, which included 420 segments” between Oct. 14 and 23, according to Rob Savillo of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America.
Today the laptop story exists in kind of a weird limbo, neither proven nor disproven, and in any case telling us nothing of relevance about President Biden.
After stumbling a bit after Election Day and allowing pure Trumpist outlets like Newsmax and OANN to move in on its territory, Fox News has resumed its dominance, according to Ted Johnson of Deadline — although the three major cable news channels, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, are on the decline.
Morever, Fox, fed by the New York Post, remains the most dominant force in Republican politics, making it impossible for the party to move beyond Trump or even to think about compromising with Biden.
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently testified before his country’s parliament about the harm his fellow Australian Murdoch has done. Among other things, he said:
What does Vladimir Putin want to do with his operations in America? He wants to divide America and turn Americans against each other. That is exactly what Murdoch has done: Divided Americans against each other and so undermined their faith in political institutions that a mob of thousands of people, many of them armed, stormed the Capitol.
On Thursday we learned that Giuliani’s home and office were raided by the FBI, reportedly in connection with his murky dealings in Ukraine as he attempted to draw a connection between alleged corruption by Hunter Biden and his father. Bannon has faced criminal charges since last August over an alleged fundraising scheme involving Trump’s wall at the southern border.
The Murdoch media, though, just goes on and on, smearing without truth or consequences. You’ll be hearing false stories about Kamala Harris’ book for the rest of her political career. Mission accomplished.
Update: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. The Times’ Grynbaum tweets:
"The New York Post does not order reporters to deliberately publish factually inaccurate information. In this case, the story was amended as soon as it came to the editors’ attention that it was inaccurate." https://t.co/rXSx4mYU6khttps://t.co/X9Fjj3u4js
The Boston Globe today published an editorial admonishing the state for directing COVID relief to restaurants that have violated pandemic rules — including a strip club in Springfield that has run afoul of the FBI. When it came time to write the headline, though, someone decided to have some fun — and that’s where things went awry.
We begin with the inspiration for the Globe’s headline, the classic New York Post headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” so famous that when the editor who wrote it, Vincent Musetto, died in 2015, his genius was celebrated far and wide.
The Globe print headline: “Heedless bodies in topless bar.” Huh? Not quite sure that gets at it.
Click on it, though, and you get “Heedless bounty in topless bar,” which I’m guessing is what was intended.
The online headline, “State needs to hurry up with restaurant aid,” is serviceable but lacks panache.
So credit to the Globe for taking some chances. But I’m not sure it quite worked.
It was last Friday at precisely 9:24 p.m. that the New York Post’s unverified and possibly false story linking Joe Biden to his son Hunter’s unseemly dealings in Ukraine crossed the line from conspiracy theory to fodder for mainstream discourse.
“He called it a ‘smear campaign’ and then went after me,” Erickson wrote, quoting Biden as saying: “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.”
I asked Joe Biden: What is your response to the NYPost story about your son, sir?
He called it a “smear campaign” and then went after me. “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.” pic.twitter.com/Eo6VD4TqxD
Biden does indeed appear angry in the accompanying video. And why shouldn’t he? In fewer than three days, an unsupported allegation based on emails of dubious provenance had slithered up the media food chain from Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy scandal sheet to what we once called the Tiffany Network. Now the story was “Biden denies,” and if — as appears more than possible — it was the work of disinformation agents, then they must have taken great satisfaction in a job well done.
The details of the story hardly matter. Even if the emails are genuine, all they show is that Joe Biden may have met with an official from Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board. Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who was investigating Burisma. But as this piece by PolitiFact explains, it has long since been established that the prosecutor himself was corrupt, and that Joe Biden was acting on behalf of the U.S. government and the Western alliance.
What does matter is that the Post story has all the earmarks of disinformation from the campaign of President Donald Trump, from Russian interests or from both.
Consider that the two sources were former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers. One of Bannon’s best-known maxims is that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s**t.” Because, inevitably, the media just can’t resist reporting on it, even it’s to debunk it or, in the case of Erickson, to get the victim to say something about it.
Moreover, The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. intelligence agents had warned months ago that Giuliani was “the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence,” and that he was passing along Russian disinformation to the president as part of his so-called investigation into the Bidens’ connections with Ukraine. Trump’s reported response: “That’s Rudy.”
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that it was a straight line from the New York Post to CBS News. There have been more than a few zigzags along the way.
For instance, there is the matter of why Giuliani’s latest “drug deal,” to recycle John Bolton’s apt phrase, found its way into the Post rather than a more respectable sector of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. If the story had been broken by The Wall Street Journal, for instance, we’d all be taking it seriously.
As it turns out, what Giuliani was peddling was too rancid even for Fox News, yet another Murdoch property. According to Mediaite, the news department at Fox rejected Rudy’s pitch because the veracity of the emails — allegedly found on a laptop that Hunter Biden had left at a Delaware repair shop — couldn’t be verified.
Crisis averted? Hardly. That’s not how the media food chain works. Because after the story appeared in the Post, Fox News hosts immediately began talking it up. According to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the story was discussed more than 100 times between Wednesday and Friday — not just on the opinion shows, but on the news side as well, even though the operation’s actual journalists had taken a pass on it.
And even within the Post, the story proved toxic. The New York Times reported that there were such misgivings in the Post’s newsroom that those involved in writing it refused to have their bylines put on it. In the end, the bylines of two women who may not have had much to do with it were placed atop the story. One, according to the Times’ sources, had “little to do with the reporting and writing of the article” and “learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published.”
The smear led to the usual handwringing at Facebook and Twitter as well. As The Guardian reported, both platforms took steps to limit the reach and distribution of the story on the grounds that the emails had not been verified. And that, in turn, led to the usual complaints from Republicans that the two services were censoring news that had a rightward slant. “Twitter’s censorship of this story is quite hypocritical,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, “given its willingness to allow users to share less-well-sourced reporting critical of other candidates.”
As I wrote recently, the media for the most part have been less gullible in covering the presidential campaign than they were four years ago, when Hillary Clinton’s emails were conflated into a massive scandal despite all evidence to the contrary. This time around, for instance, the press treated unproven claims by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer who charged that Biden sexually assaulted her a generation ago, with the skepticism they deserved.
But Giuliani, in particular, has refused to let go of the Ukraine story. And it’s got to be damaging to Biden on at least some level for it to resurface just a few weeks before the final day of voting. You can be sure it will come up at this Thursday’s debate, and it is exactly the kind of complicated tale that can’t be refuted with a soundbite. The challenge for Biden will be explaining it in simple terms while Trump is interrupting him and yelling at him, regardless of whether his mic has been cut.
A few minutes after Bo Erickson tweeted out Biden’s response, his CBS News colleague Paula Reid came to his defense. “Biden adopts Trump playbook” by “attacking” Erickson, she tweeted, adding: “Fine to attack the story, but why personally insult Bo?”
The “Trump playbook”? Seriously? Biden’s response was sharp and a little rude, but hardly out of line given that Erickson was giving mainstream credibility to an unverified smear. Fortunately for Biden, the media for the most part appear not to be taking it seriously.
But the question of how to handle such unproven and unprovable allegations remains unanswered. Ignore them, and you’ll be accused of bias — and the story will get out there anyway. Debunk them, and you’re giving them wider play. Ask the target about them, and you run the risk of #bothsides-ism.
It’s a miserable dilemma. But that’s the state of media and politics in 2020.
In case you haven’t heard, the New York Post today is running 20-year-old nude photos of Melania Trump. The pictures were taken during a modeling session for which she was presumably paid. There doesn’t seem to be any scandal associated with the photos. And yet, last night, I saw a number of people denounce the Post‘s decision to publish them as “sexist.”
Is it? I wouldn’t have published the photos. You’ll notice that I’m not linking to them. Yet when various media outlets published a mostly nude photo of Scott Brown during his mercifully brief career as a national political figure, I don’t recall anyone denouncing that as sexist.
File this under “no big deal.” Especially after Donald Trump viciously attacked the Khans, the Constitution-waving Gold Star parents who spoke out against Trump’s hatred of Muslims at last week’s Democratic National Convention. That, folks, is a big deal.
Update: Here’s a worthwhile distinction. Not sure why I didn’t think of it myself.
@dankennedy_nu not sure it's sexist but I think it's wildly inappropriate. Brown was a candidate; Melania is not.
I am shocked, shocked to learn that the “wife bonus” story has been called into question.
Last month I shared with my ethics class an opinion piece that appeared in The New York Times claiming, among other things, that some rich women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were paid “wife bonuses” by their husbands based on “how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.”
The article, by a “social researcher” who goes by the name Wednesday Martin, was based on her forthcoming book, “Primates of New York.”
Martin’s Times piece was, shall we say, remarkably thin. There was not a single named source who could provide direct evidence of the practice. Nor were there any experts cited who could talk about the phenomenon. Statistics? We don’t need no stinking statistics. My students and I agreed that this was worth keeping an eye on.
Well, well, well. The New York Post reported over the weekend that Martin’s claims may not actually be true. Or as the Post puts it in its headline, “Upper East side housewife’s tell-all book is full of lies.” And though “wife bonuses” are not one of the “lies” exposed by the Post, its veracity appears to be on shaky ground. Here’s what Martin wrote in the Times on May 16:
Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.
And here’s what she told the Post:
I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread. It was just one of the many strange-seeming cultural practices that some women told me about.
Granted, not a full retreat. But Martin is clearly hedging.
Now it looks like “Primates of New York” is headed for the monkey cage. The Times today reports that the publisher, Simon & Schuster, will “append a note to future editions of the book, written by the social researcher Wednesday Martin, clarifying that some of the memoir’s details and chronologies were changed.”
We await public editor Margaret Sullivan’s take on the latest bogus trend story to find its way into the Times — something she has already joked about with her “Monocle Meter,” named after a trend story about young hipsters wearing monocles that appeared to be — well, uh, you know. Unsubstantiated.
There’s plenty of fulminating in conservative media circles today over President Barack Obama’s unabashedly liberal State of the Union address.
Some of it is offered in world-weary tones suggesting that, once again, the grown-ups have to explain to the kids that the president doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Mr. Obama’s income-redistribution themes are familiar,” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “though they are amusingly detached from the reality of the largest GOP majority in Congress since 1949.”
Some of it is angry. “The president continues to count on and to exploit the ignorance of many of our fellow citizens,” thumps Scott Johnson of Power Line.
Leave it to David Frum of The Atlantic, though, to explain what might have really been going on Tuesday night. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Frum is the closest thing we’ve got these days to a moderate Republican commentator. And he thinks Obama was aiming his proposals — tax hikes for the rich, tax cuts for the middle class and new governmental benefits such as free community college — at an audience of one: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“The intent, pretty obviously, is to box in his presumptive successor as head of the Democratic Party,” Frum writes. “Every time the president advances a concept that thrills his party’s liberal base, he creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton. Does she agree or not? Any time she is obliged to answer, her scope to define herself is constricted.”
The effect, Frum predicts, will be to push the pro-business Clinton to the left and thereby hand an opportunity to the Republican presidential aspirants.
Whatever Obama’s motivation, there’s no question that his demeanor was that of a conquering hero rather than a weakened president facing the first all-Republican Congress of his tenure.
“Obama delivered an hour-long defense of his policies that at times sounded like a victory lap,” is how David Nakamura puts it in his lead story for The Washington Post. In The New York Times, Michael D. Shear calls Obama “confident and at times cocky.” Matt Viser of The Boston Globe says the president was “confident, brash, and upbeat.”
If nothing else, Obama demonstrated that he understood the atmospherics of the State of the Union. It’s a TV show, with all the entertainment values that implies. And thus there was no need for him to acknowledge the Democrats’ brutal performance in the November elections, or that the proposals he offered Tuesday have no more chance of passing than, say, Canadian-style health care. He had the podium, and the Republicans could applaud or not.
As for how the State of the Union was received, that’s a little harder to figure out. The only survey I’ve seen, from CNN/ORC, shows that 51 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to Obama’s speech and 30 percent were “somewhat positive.” That’s sounds like a big thumbs-up until you look more closely at the numbers. It turns out that 39 percent of those surveyed were Democrats and just 20 percent were Republicans — a reflection of who watched the speech, not of public sentiment as a whole.
Another way of looking at that, though, is that Obama knew he was speaking to a friendly audience — not in Congress, but at home, as Democrats were far more likely to tune in than Republicans. So why not use the occasion to energize his supporters — and drive his enemies to distraction?
Obama’s detractors at Fox News were fairly restrained Tuesday night and online this morning. But you can be sure Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, et al. will be at it tonight. Meanwhile, consider this, from Charles Hurt of The Washington Times: “President Obama dedicated his State of the Union address to illegal aliens, college students and communist Cuba. In other words, all those imaginary supporters he claims to be hearing from ever since the actual American electorate denounced him, his party and his policies in last year’s beat-down election.”
More to the point, John Podhoretz writes in the New York Post that “in the most substantive speech he’s given in a long time, he has committed his presidency toward policies that have no hope of a serious hearing from the legislatures whose job it is to turn policies into law.”
Obama knows that, of course. The real message of the State of the Union was that the 2016 campaign has begun. Having long since concluded that the Republicans won’t compromise with him, the president delivered a political speech, aimed electing a Democratic president and Congress.
The horrifying execution of journalist James Foley raises an uncomfortable if familiar question: Is there anything to be gained by watching the video of his beheading at the hands of an ISIS terrorist?
It’s a question that I explored 12 years ago, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was similarly murdered. I searched for the video online and found it at a website whose sick operators presented such fare for the entertainment of their disturbed viewers. I shared it with my friends at The Boston Phoenix, who — to my surprise — published several small black-and-white stills of Pearl’s beheading and provided a link to the full video. “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” the Phoenix’s outraged publisher, Stephen Mindich, wrote in an accompanying editorial.
The Phoenix’s actions created a national controversy. I defended Mindich and editor Peter Kadzis, first in the Phoenix, later in Nieman Reports. (At the time I had left the paper to write my first book, though I continued to contribute freelance pieces. My departure turned out to be temporary. And Kadzis, my editor then, is also my editor now: he is the senior editor of WGBH News.) I wrote in the Nieman piece:
Daniel Pearl didn’t seek martyrdom, but martyrdom found him. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows us the true face of evil, an evil that manifested itself unambiguously last September 11…. We turn away from such evil at our peril.
I stand by what I wrote then, but I haven’t watched the execution of Jim Foley. In contrast to the Daniel Pearl footage, the Foley video is bright and clear, in high definition. I’ve watched a bit of it, listened to him speak while kneeling in the desert; but that was all I could handle.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby takes a different view, writing, “The intrepid and compassionate reporter from New Hampshire didn’t travel to Syria to sanitize and downplay the horror occurring there. He went to document and expose it.”
I don’t disagree. But it should be a matter of choice. Gawker, among the first media outlets to post a link to the video, made sure its readers knew that what they would see if they clicked was “extremely disturbing.” By contrast, the New York Post and the Daily News published front-page images of Foley (I’ve linked to a Washington Post story, not the actual images) just before his beheading — in the New York Post’s case, barely a nanosecond before.
It’s a fine line, but I’d say Gawker was on the right side of it, and the New York tabloids were not.
At the time of his capture, Foley was freelancing for GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization. GlobalPost co-founder and chief executive Phil Balboni, in a tribute published in the Globe, wrote:
For those of us who knew Jim, the road ahead will be particularly long and trying. As a lifelong journalist, the path forward for me will be rooted in a renewed and profound respect for a profession that for Jim was not a job, but a calling.
We’ve learned a lot since the execution of Daniel Pearl. One of the things we’ve learned is that bearing witness does not necessarily lead to a good result. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have not created a safer world.
Do we have a right to view the James Foley video? Of course. Twitter, a private company that has become a virtual public utility, is heading down a dangerous road by banning images from the video. Should we watch the video as a way of witnessing unspeakable evil, as Jeff Jacoby argues? That, I would suggest, should be up to each of us.
Above all, we should honor the bravery and sacrifice of journalists like Daniel Pearl and James Foley, who take risks most of us can scarcely imagine. Let’s keep the Foley family in our thoughts, and celebrate the safe return of Peter Theo Curtis. And let’s send offer whatever good thoughts we can for Steven Sotloff, a fellow hostage of Foley’s who was threatened with death last week.
Following Tuesday’s announcement that Cox Media Group would acquire WFXT-TV (Channel 25) from Murdoch’s Fox Television Stations as part of a Boston-San Francisco station swap, there has been speculation as to whether Murdoch would re-enter the Boston newspaper market. Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin raises the issue here; the Boston Business Journal’s Eric Convey, a former Herald staff member, addresses it as well. I’ve also heard from several people on Facebook.
First, the obvious: There would be no legal obstacles if Murdoch wants to buy the Herald. The FCC’s cross-ownership prohibition against a single owner controlling a TV station and a daily newspaper in the same market would no longer apply.
Now for some analysis. Murdoch is 83 years old, and though he seems remarkably active for an octogenarian, I have it on good authority that he, like all of us, is not going to live forever. Moreover, in 2013 his business interests were split, and his newspapers — which include The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and the New York Post — are now in a separate division of the Murdoch-controlled News Corp. No longer can his lucrative broadcasting and entertainment properties be used to enhance his newspapers’ balance sheets.
Various accounts portray Murdoch as the last romantic — the only News Corp. executive who still has a soft spot for newspapers. The Herald would not be a good investment because newspapers in general are not good investments, and because it is the number-two daily in a mid-size market. Moreover, the guilty verdict handed down to former News of the World editor Andy Coulson in the British phone-hacking scandal Tuesday suggests that Murdoch may be preoccupied with other matters.
On the other hand, who knows? Herald owner Pat Purcell is a longtime friend and former lieutenant of Murdoch’s, and if Rupe wants to stage a Boston comeback, maybe Purcell could be persuaded to let it happen. Even while owning the Herald, Purcell continued to work for Murdoch, running what were once the Ottaway community papers — including the Cape Cod Times and The Standard-Times of New Bedford — from 2008 until they were sold to an affiliate of GateHouse Media last fall.
There is a storied history involving Murdoch and the Herald. Hearst’s Herald American was on the verge of collapse in 1982 when Murdoch swooped in, rescued the tabloid and infused it with new energy. Murdoch added to his Boston holdings in the late 1980s, acquiring Channel 25 and seeking a waiver from the FCC so that he could continue to own both.
One day as that story was unfolding, then-senator Ted Kennedy was making a campaign swing through suburban Burlington. As a reporter for the local daily, I was following him from stop to stop. Kennedy had just snuck an amendment into a bill to deny Rupert Murdoch the regulatory waiver he was seeking that would allow him to own both the Herald and Channel 25 (Kennedy’s amendment prohibited a similar arrangement in New York). At every stop, Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief would ask him, “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?”
The episode also led Kennedy’s most caustic critic at the Herald, columnist Howie Carr, to write a particularly memorable lede: “Was it something I said, Fat Boy?” Years later, Carr remained bitter, telling me, “Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends” at The Boston Globe.
Murdoch sold Channel 25, but in the early 1990s he bought it back — and sold the Herald to Purcell, who’d been publisher of the paper, reporting to Murdoch, for much of the ’80s. It would certainly be a fascinating twist on this 30-year-plus newspaper tale if Murdoch and Purcell were to change positions once again.