Why it matters that The New York Times got it wrong on Section 230

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on two cases involving Section 230. Photo (cc) 2006 by OZinOH.

Way back in 1996, when Section 230 was enacted into law, it was designed to protect all web publishers, most definitely including newspapers, from being sued over third-party content posted in their comment sections. It would be another eight years before Facebook was launched, and longer than that before algorithms would be used to boost certain types of content.

But that didn’t stop David McCabe of The New York Times — who, we are told, “has reported for five years on the policy debate over online speech” — from including this howler in a story about two cases regarding Section 230 that are being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court:

While newspapers and magazines can be sued over what they publish, Section 230 shields online platforms from lawsuits over most content posted by their users.

No. I have to assume that McCabe and maybe even his editors know better, and that this was their inept way of summarizing the issue for a general readership. But it perpetuates the harmful and wrong notion that this is only about Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. It’s not. Newspapers and magazines are liable for everything they publish except third-party online comments, which means that they are treated exactly the same as the giant platforms.

Though it is true that an early case testing Section 230 involved comments posted at AOL rather than on a news website, the principle that online publishers can’t be held liable for what third parties post on their platforms is as valuable to, oh, let’s say The New York Times as it is to Facebook.

That’s not to say 230 can’t be reformed and restricted; and, as I wrote recently, it probably should be. But it’s important that the public understand exactly what’s at stake.

The New York Times engages in some fanciful pretending about the debt limit

Why won’t Washington do something? Illustration (cc) 2010 via 2di7 & titanio44.

Oh, my goodness, what has The New York Times done now? You know, I could write pieces like this all the time, but it would quickly get boring — for me and for you. Sometimes, though, the Times gives us such a perfect example of willful ignorance (Jay Rosen calls it “the production of innocence”) that it has to be called out.

The headline on the story leading the Times’ homepage right now is “As Debt Limit Threat Looms, Wall Street and Washington Have Only Rough Plans.” I’m posting an image of it just in case an editor lurches into consciousness and changes it, which has been known to happen.

The lead is just as bad:

With days to go before the United States bumps up against a technical limit on how much debt it can issue, Wall Street analysts and political prognosticators are warning that a perennial source of partisan brinkmanship could finally tip into outright catastrophe in 2023.

The headline treats the debt limit as though it were an asteroid hurtling toward earth, without any human agency. The lead has a somewhat different emphasis, pretending that the crisis is the subject of a legitimate debate between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, as we all know, neither is the case. Rather, this is a phony crisis sparked by radical House Republicans (that is to say, all of them, or most of them, anyway) who refuse to cover the country’s debt for goods and services we’ve already paid for.

It is a deeply phony, cynical maneuver that comes up whenever there’s a Democratic president and at least one branch of Congress is under Republican control. The Republicans don’t do this when there’s a Republican president, even though Donald Trump, George W. Bush and their predecessors engaged in a lot more deficit spending than Democratic presidents. Nor do Democrats do this when there’s a Republican president because, whatever the Democrats’ flaws, they are fundamentally a party that governs in good faith.

The central point of the story, written by Jeanna Smialek and Joe Rennison, is that Wall Street and the Treasury Department could do more to defuse the debt bomb that’s about to be detonated. There’s nary a hint, though, that such a disaster would be inconceivable if we had two functioning political parties rather than one normal party — and one that’s run entirely off the rails.

The Globe’s Taunton printing plant will lay off about 30 employees, the BBJ reports

Presses at The Boston Globe’s Taunton printing plant. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

About 30 employees will be laid off at The Boston Globe’s printing plant in Taunton following news that the Globe has lost its contract to print the regional edition of The New York Times. The layoffs were reported early this morning by Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal.

The loss of the Times contract was revealed Saturday by Media Nation. But though I had heard there would be layoffs associated with the move, I was unable to pin down the exact number. Seiffert, citing a “source familiar with the ongoing negotiations over those layoffs,” reported there will be about 200 Globe employees left in Taunton.

The Times is now being printed by the Dow Jones plant in Chicopee; Dow Jones is the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

Seiffert’s story also contains an interesting wrinkle that could, in theory, hasten the demise of the five-year-old, $72 million Taunton plant: a workforce of 200 is only a third of what the Globe promised when it obtained a tax break from that city in order to bring much-needed jobs into that area.

At one point the Taunton facility printed not just the Globe but also the Times, USA Today and the Boston Herald. Seiffert’s source told him that the printing plant has “‘totally abandoned any revenue streams related to other commercial print or direct-mail work’ and is now printing only the Boston Globe.”

The Globe’s paid digital circulation of about 230,000 now outpaces print by a considerable margin. According to the most recent figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, the Globe’s average weekday print circulation is now about 64,000, and about 112,000 on Sundays.

If Taunton is no longer getting any outside work, it raises the prospect that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, may close the plant at some point and job out the Globe’s print run — perhaps to a combination of Chicopee, CNHI’s Eagle-Tribune plant in North Andover (which has handled some of the Globe’s production work in the past) and/or Gannett’s Providence Journal.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that The Eagle-Tribune had an arrangement to handle part of the Globe’s print run in the past. That was incorrect.

The Globe loses its contract to print The New York Times

Sign outside the Globe’s printing plant in Taunton. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

The Boston Globe has lost its contract to print the regional edition of The New York Times at its Taunton facility. The Times will instead now be printed at the Dow Jones plant in Chicopee. Dow Jones is the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

When the Globe’s Taunton printing plant opened in 2017, the hope was that it could turn a profit for the paper by taking on outside clients. The facility got off to a rough start, though, with publisher-owner John Henry writing a front-page note to subscribers admitting that the presses “are operating too slowly and breaking too often.” He added: “We are embarrassed. We are sincerely sorry to all those affected.” In my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I described the launch of the Taunton plant as a “disaster.”

At one point, the Globe printed the Times, the Boston Herald and USA Today. The Herald decamped for The Providence Journal some time ago. When I asked Globe spokeswoman Heidi Flood whether the Taunton facility currently has any outside work, she answered only that “we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant.” She did say that Taunton now handles the entire Globe print run. At one time the Globe was jobbing some of its run out to The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover; I’m not sure when that stopped.

I’ve heard that the Taunton plant has laid some employees off as well, but Flood did not address that when I asked her about it by email. The full text of her statement follows.

I can confirm that the Times decided not to renew their printing contract with the Globe. We worked very hard over many months to keep their business in a way that also worked for ours, but were not able to arrive at a financially sustainable agreement. While the pending NYT departure is disappointing, from a business perspective it’s the right decision and positions us more favorably for the future.

The Times’s decision to print elsewhere will not affect our Globe print operations. Taunton currently handles the entire Globe print run and we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant. First and foremost, the Globe remains committed to meeting the needs of our valuable print subscribers.

COVID, the elderly and the rising death rate: What the media still haven’t reported

The bad old days. Middlesex Fells, July 2020.

Last month I criticized an opinion piece by David Wallace-Wells in The New York Times for failing to pull together two lines of statistics about the elderly and COVID-19. Yes, the death rate among those 80 and older remains very high, but we don’t have a clear sense of how many of those who died had received the bivalent booster, the best protection available against serious illness and death.

Today we run into a similar problem in The Boston Globe, although at least reporter Felice J. Freyer doesn’t make any opinionated assertions for which she lacks data. Freyer reports that the COVID death rate in Massachusetts is jumping up again. In a chart that accompanies her story, we learn that the latest death rate is now 62.14 per 100,000 cases. Of the 129 deaths, 76.8% were 80 and older, and 15.9% were between 70 and 79. The rate among those 29 and younger was zero.

We also learn from Freyer’s reporting that 59% of Massachusetts residents 65 and older have received the bivalent booster, a much higher proportion than the 38% who’ve received it in the country as a whole. That is to our credit.

But here’s where the twain never meets. What we would really like to know, more than anything, is how many of those elderly people in Massachusetts who are dying of COVID are also among the 41% who didn’t receive the bivalent booster. We can be reasonably sure that the death rate among the unboosted elderly is higher than it is for those who’ve been boosted. But how much higher? Does anyone know?

A Long Island weekly had the goods on Santos several weeks before Election Day

The North Shore Leader described Santos as “bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy” in an editorial published Oct. 20.

Josh Marshall, who’s been all over the George Santos story, has an update that casts media non-coverage of this fraud in an entirely new light. It turns out that there was a local news outlet reporting on several aspects of Santos’ fabricated history before Election Day.

You may recall that Santos is the newly elected Republican congressman from western Long Island who picked off a Democratic seat on the strength of his phony résumé. As best as anyone can tell, he’s been lying about his education, his career and maybe even whether he’s Jewish and gay. The New York Times exposed those fabrications on Monday, leaving a number of outraged observers to ask where the Times was last fall.

My own take was that the Times, as a national and international paper, couldn’t be expected to vet every candidate in New York State. At a certain point, you have to hold political candidates themselves responsible, and it appears that Santos’ Democratic opponent, Robert Zimmerman, didn’t do a very good job. As Marshall observes, the dossier Zimmerman’s campaign put together focused on the usual stuff — that Santos was a MAGA-loving Trump supporter — and missed the bigger picture.

But wait. A newspaper in Santos’ district called The North Shore Leader had it all along. Marshall posted the details on Thursday. As Leader reporter Niall Fitzgerald writes:

In a story first broken by the North Shore Leader over four months ago, the national media has suddenly discovered that US Congressman-elect George Santos (R-Queens / Nassau) — dubbed “George Scam-tos” by many local political observers — is a deepfake liar who has falsified his background, assets, and contacts. He is fact a wanted petty criminal in Brazil.

Fitzgerald doesn’t link to that earlier story, but the Leader endorsed Zimmerman nearly three weeks before Election Day and raised some serious questions about Santos’ background:

In 2020 Santos, then age 32, was the NY Director of a nearly $20 million venture fund called “Harbor City Capital” — until the SEC shut it down as a “Ponzi Scheme.” Over $6 million from investors was stolen — for personal luxuries like Mercedes cars, huge credit card bills, and a waterfront home — and millions from new investors were paid out to old investors. Classic Bernie Madoff “Ponzi scheme” fraud.

Santos’ campaign raises similar concerns. On paper Santos has raised over $2 million. But the money seems to have vanished — or never been there. Huge sums are listed with the FEC for personal expenses — like Brooks Brothers, Florida beach resorts, lavish restaurants and limo services — but many hundreds of thousands more disappear into a black hole of dubious “consulting fees.”

In other words, much of the Santos story was already out there before Election Day. It’s too bad that the Leader’s endorsement didn’t influence enough voters to drag Zimmerman across the finish line.

The Leader’s endorsement raises serious questions about the timing of the Times’ reporting. I was willing to give them a pass for not doing a scrub on Santos in the absence of specific information. Large news organizations rely on oppo research to signal them whether they need to do a deeper dive, and, as I said, Zimmerman’s oppo was lame. But the Times does cover metropolitan New York, and it should be a basic part of every metro newspaper’s duties to scan the local papers. The Leader’s endorsements ran in its Oct. 20 edition, more than enough time to gear up for an exposé.

Nor could the Times dismiss the Leader’s endorsement of Zimmerman as an act of partisan hackery. The Leader endorsed four candidates for the House, and three of them were Republicans. The Zimmerman endorsement laments that it couldn’t back a Republican in that district as well.

The Leader does not report its circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media, but according to the Leader’s About page, the paper was founded more than 60 years ago and reaches “thousands of Gold Coast readers.” Sounds like a fairly reliable source to me.

And let’s not let Newsday off the hook, either. Long Island’s daily paper, once regarded as among the best in the country, still has a substantial readership, according to the most recent figures filed with the AAM — 218,953 print and digital subscriptions on Sunday and an average of 191,413 on weekdays. I could find no evidence that Newsday examined Santos’ background in any substantial way in the run-up to the election. Don’t they read the weeklies?

At the very least, interns at the Times and at Newsday should be assigned to scan the local papers every day. If they had, it seems probable that someone would have seen the Leader’s reporting and amplified it before voters headed to the polls and elected a candidate who appears to be an utter fraud. Santos is even on the take from Russian interests, as The Daily Beast Reported — several weeks after the election.

It will be fascinating to see whether Santos can survive in office. At one time we’d be counting the days. But Kevin McCarthy needs him in his pathetic campaign for House speaker. Incredibly, Santos is likely to survive until the next election.

Why the Times didn’t expose George Santos before Election Day

The New York Times today published a remarkable exposé (free link) of a Republican congressman-elect from Long Island named George Santos. It seems that almost nothing he’s ever claimed about himself is true. For all I know, he may not even exist.

The details, though, are less important than the timing. If the article, by Grace Ashford and Michael Gold, had been published before the November election, it seems likely that Santos would have lost to his Democratic rival, Robert Zimmerman. Instead, the people of his district are almost surely stuck with him for the next two years. As I posted on Mastodon: “Not to play down the work involved, but it sure would have been nice for the NYT to publish this before the election — especially since this is the second time he’s run.”

Others soon piled on, including a few members of the conspiratorial left who asserted without evidence that the Times wanted Santos to win, so they waited until after the election. That, of course, makes zero sense.

What most likely happened is something I’ve seen during my own career: the media didn’t bother to vet Santos before the election because they believed he had no chance of winning, even though he’d run before. Now, before you get too outraged, let’s keep in mind that journalistic resources are limited, and not everything and everyone is going to receive the scrutiny that they perhaps they deserve. The political press is also dependent on opposition research as well. If Zimmerman didn’t think Santos warranted investigating then it’s difficult for the media to know that, of all the people running for office, Santos deserved a closer look. Josh Marshall put it this way:

So why didn’t Santos get more scrutiny? Basically because he was running in a fairly Democratic district and people didn’t think he had much of a shot. He ran against Rep. Tom Suozzi in 2020 and lost 56% to 44%. But Suozzi gave up his seat in what turned out to be a failed run for governor. This year Santos won 54% to 46% in what was now an open seat. These are generally Democratic districts. But they’re very different from districts in most of New York City where Republicans today have virtually no chance of winning. In New York state’s red wave, Santos won and by a significant margin.

It’s not pretty and, yes, it’s easy to say that the Times and other news outlets should have paid more attention to Santos and his apparently fake résumé before Election Day. But as the great poet Donald Rumsfeld once explained, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The possibility that Santos might win, and that his record wouldn’t hold up to the most cursory examination, was an unknown unknown. The press can’t expose this sort of thing if it doesn’t know where to look.

This episode also says something about the local news crisis. Was there no community journalism outlet for whom this race would have been a top priority? Apparently not.

Don’t cross the digital picket line

The New York Times union is asking people to stay off Times platforms on Thursday. Let’s fuel a huge drop in traffic in solidarity with the union.

Both-sides-ism creeps into a story that mostly rises above both-sides-ism

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. Photo (cc) 2017 by Lorie Shaull.

Sometimes it can be hard to avoid both-sides-ism no matter how well-intentioned you are. On Sunday, as part of its “Democracy Challenged” series, The New York Times analyzed the rhetoric (free link) of congressional representatives to see to what extent members of the two major parties are using toxic, polarizing language. Here’s the nut:

The Times found that in the current Congress, representatives who fought certifying the election used polarizing language on Twitter about 55 percent more often than other Republicans, and nearly triple the rate of Democrats. Objectors referred to their opponents as “socialist” in more than 1,800 tweets, more than twice as often as other Republicans. Democrats called the other side “fascist” about 80 times.

The article, by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Steve Eder, is comprehensive and important. But do you see what they’re doing? They’re telling us that even though Republicans use terrible language to demonize their opponents far more often than Democrats, Democrats sometimes do it, too.

There aren’t a half-dozen Democratic members of Congress who are socialists — not even in the mild, Western European sense. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republicans have embraced election denialism, a number that goes well beyond those who refused to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021. In doing so, they are embracing authoritarianism, which, if it is anything, is surely a form of fascism. Maybe “semi-fascism,” to use President Biden’s apt phrase.

In attempting to show that Democrats do it, too, the Times cites the example of Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, who, on the first anniversary of the failed insurrection, “sent an email to her constituents calling the event an ‘attempted coup’ and asserting that ‘our democracy is in danger.'” She told the Times that she has no regrets, saying, “I intend to defend our democracy, and if that is ‘polarizing,’ so be it.”

Well, yes. Nearly all of the Republican attacks on Democrats are laden with falsehoods or wild exaggerations. The Democratic attacks on Republicans aren’t just far less numerous — they are also, for the most part, an accurate assessment of what we’re up against. The story, good as it is, could have done a better job of showing that.

No, James Bennet was not a victim of the woke mob

Black Lives Matter rally in Washington, June 2020. Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

The ossification of James Bennet’s departure from The New York Times into a simple morality tale of wokeness run amok is now complete.

In an interview with Ben Smith for the debut of Smith’s new project, Semafor, Bennet is overflowing with self-pity over the way his tenure as the Times’ editorial page editor came to an end. You may recall that Bennet was forced out in June 2020 after running an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton in which Cotton wrote that Black Lives Matter protests should be met with military force. Bennet tells Smith that his only regret was running an editor’s note after the fact.

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“My mistake there was trying to mollify people,” Bennet said. He added that publisher A.G. Sulzberger showed no regard for Bennet’s 19-year career at the Times, which included putting himself in harm’s way while reporting from the West Bank and Gaza. “None of that mattered, and none of it mattered to A.G.,” Bennet said. “When push came to shove at the end, he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me. This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”

Then, in a post-interview text to Smith, Bennet added: “One more thing that sometimes gets misreported: I never apologized for publishing the piece and still don’t.”

This is pretty entertaining stuff, but Bennet — and Smith — leave out a lot. Let’s start with the Cotton op-ed, an ugly little screed that he defended vociferously and then later admitted he hadn’t even read it before publication. This is sheer dereliction of duty. I don’t doubt that he couldn’t read everything that was published in the Times opinion section, but this was an incendiary piece about a fraught topic. And he knew it was coming, since it was a piece he had solicited.

But let’s get right to the heart of the matter. It was only a few months ago that the Times won a libel suit brought by Sarah Palin over a 2017 editorial tying her violent rhetoric to the 2011 shooting of then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — a crime that also claimed the lives of six people. Bennet had inserted that falsehood while editing the editorial, and Palin’s lawsuit was factually correct. The Times won not because Palin was wrong but because, as public figure, she had to prove that Bennet’s actions were deliberate rather than negligent, and Bennet had little trouble proving his negligence during a cringe-worthy turn on the witness stand. It should be noted that at the time of the Cotton affair, Palin had already filed her lawsuit — something that had to enter into Sulzberger’s thinking.

Then there’s the matter of Times columnist Bret Stephens, who, in 2019, wrote a column saying that maybe Ashkenazi Jews really are genetically more intelligent and backed up his assertion by linking to an article co-authored by a white supremacist. Stephens was let off with a fairly mild editor’s note and a re-edit that toned down his toxic views. But it remains a source of astonishment that a Jewish columnist could write something that has been used to persecute Jews throughout history and that no one — least of all Bennet — caught it beforehand.

It’s no surprise that Bennet landed on his feet; he’s currently a columnist for The Economist. Of course, it suits his agenda to make his demise at the Times sound like a simple matter of being hounded out by the woke mob. That’s not what happened, or at least that’s not all that happened. Smith, who was the Times media columnist when Bennet finally slipped on his last banana peel, knows that as well as anyone.