Wall St. Journal’s newsroom calls out opinion section over Pence’s COVID falsehoods

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:

Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.

According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.

We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.

I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.

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Bennet’s out as newsrooms come to terms (or not) with Black Lives Matter

Photo (cc) 2010 by samchills.

At least at the moment, I have little to add to the story of James Bennet’s departure as editorial-page editor of The New York Times beyond what Ben Smith of the Times, Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute and Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review have written, and what I wrote last week.

As Smith, Jones and Allsop point out, Bennet’s misguided decision to run Sen. Tom Cotton’s ugly commentary advocating violence against protesters should be seen as part of a larger story that encompasses Wesley Lowery’s unfortunate experience at The Washington Post, the resignation of Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski over his paper’s horrendous “Buildings Matter, Too” headline, and the right-wing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s meltdown over Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter whom they claimed couldn’t be trusted to cover Black Lives Matter protests because of an innocuous tweet she had posted.

Because of the Times’ central place in our media culture, Bennet’s departure is the big story. As the coverage makes clear, Bennet lurched from one misstep to another during his time as editorial-page editor, so it would be a mistake to attribute his departure solely to the Cotton op-ed. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from his mishandling of a Bret Stephens column in which Stephens came very close to endorsing a genetic basis for intelligence.

Bennet will be replaced through the election on an interim basis by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, who won a Pulitzer when she was at The Boston Globe. Kingsbury is terrific, and I hope she’s given a chance to earn the job.

Finally, a semi-related incident involving the Globe. You may have seen this on the front of Sunday’s print edition:

There’s no question that the cover, which you can see here, would have been considered entirely inoffensive before a police officer killed George Floyd. Even now I’m not sure how many readers would have been outraged. Still, I think the Globe made the right call. An abundance of caution and sensitivity is what’s needed at the moment.

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No, The New York Times shouldn’t have published Tom Cotton’s ugly little screed

Sen. Tom Cotton. Photo (cc) 2013 by Gage Skidmore.

The New York Times may be rethinking its decision to publish Sen. Tom Cotton’s terrible, offensive op-ed piece endorsing the use of military force to crush the violent protests that have broken out around the country following the brutal, unjustified police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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Lies, damn lies and statistics

A front-page story in today’s New York Times suggests that Sweden hasn’t paid much of a price for its blasé attitude toward COVID-19. Here is the key paragraph supporting that premise:

Sweden’s death rate of 22 per 100,000 people is the same as that of Ireland, which has earned accolades for its handling of the pandemic, and far better than in Britain or France.

Yet Times columnist Thomas Friedman tells a completely different story:

As USA Today noted: “Sweden has a population of 10 million people, about twice as large as its nearest Scandinavian neighbors. As of April 28, the country’s Covid-19 death toll reached 2,274, about five times higher than in Denmark and 11 times higher than in Norway.” Nursing home residents account for more than a third of all deaths.

And get this: Friedman supports the Swedish approach, arguing that it’s the only way we’re going to build herd immunity. Yet the World Health Organization recently reported that we don’t know whether people who’ve recovered from COVID can get it again. Needless to say, if there’s no immunity, there will be no herd immunity.

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Do newspaper endorsements matter? Why a hoary tradition may be near its end

My Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman has written an important thread about political endorsements by news organizations. Her starting point is the Concord Monitor’s unusual decision not to endorse in the New Hampshire primary. (Heckman is a former editor at the Monitor.) Please read it and come back.

The Monitor’s non-endorsement is not the only break with the past that we’ve seen in recent weeks.

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My half-hearted argument in favor of The New York Times’ double endorsement

I’m not going to try to defend The New York Times’ decision to punt and endorse two Democratic candidates for president.

In watching the endorsement process play out Sunday night on “The Weekly,” it seemed to me that the editorial board members’ main goal was to stop the frontrunner, Joe Biden, whom they see as too old and too vague. By endorsing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the Times diluted the boost it might have given to Warren, who is — along with Bernie Sanders — the strongest challenger to Biden.

But if you read the entire 3,400-word editorial, you’ll find a semi-respectable argument for the double endorsement at the very end:

There will be those dissatisfied that this page is not throwing its weight behind a single candidate, favoring centrists or progressives. But it’s a fight the party itself has been itching to have since Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and one that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth. That’s the very purpose of primaries, to test-market strategies and ideas that can galvanize and inspire the country.

Essentially the Times sees itself as endorsing candidates in two separate Democratic primaries — the progressive primary and the moderate primary. Seen in this light, the Times is hoping ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses to give a boost to Warren against Sanders and to Klobuchar against Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That makes some sense, though I still think a single endorsement would have been better. Still, if the two-primaries argument had been stated more explicitly, in the lead, the Times could have spared itself some of the head-scratching and mockery it’s being subjected to today.

As for “The Weekly,” I found the hour fascinating, with the participants — led by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, subbing for James Bennet, whose brother Michael is (believe it or not) a presidential candidate — coming across as thoughtful and serious. I saw some Twitter chatter suggesting that the participants seemed elitist and out of touch, but that strikes me as an inevitable consequence of the the setting and the process. How could it be otherwise?

And let’s give the Times credit for dragging the traditionally secretive endorsement process out into the open, including transcripts of the interviews with each of the candidates.

Let’s just hope the Times restricts itself to one endorsement this fall.

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Yes, Bret Stephens really did write that there might be something to eugenics

Over the weekend, media Twitter was aflame over a column by Bret Stephens of The New York Times in which he appeared to endorse the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than other people. You can read the original here.

Stephens, who should have already been on probation for past offenses, appears to have gotten away with it again. After the column appeared in print, it was appended with an Editor’s Note saying that Stephens intended to say no such thing. The column was edited after the fact to remove the offending reference as well as a link to a study he was citing. You can see the new version with the Editor’s Note here.

I had intended to write a full post. But this piece by Jack Shafer in Politico is so comprehensive and spot-on that I’m going to suggest that you read it in full. I’ll just offer a few points that I think deserve emphasis, especially among those who’ve been inclined to give Stephens the benefit of the doubt.

  • Stephens’ original column links to a 2005 study whose executive summary claims, over and over, that the Ashkenazi may well have certain genetic advantages with regard to intelligence. For instance: “In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence.”
  • One of the co-authors of that paper, Henry Harpending, has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist” and a longtime advocate of eugenics — that is, discredited science that argues for the genetic superiority (and inferiority) of certain races and ethnic groups.
  • Stephens did not dismiss the study. Rather, he glossed over it, writing that whether it’s true or not, it’s less important in explaining Ashkenazi intelligence and achievements than their environment. Thus Stephens piously claims that the genetic theory matters less than other factors, but that there might nevertheless be something to it. Here is the key quote from Stephens: “Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
  • The Times’ re-editing of Stephens’ column goes far beyond correcting errors or clarifying ambiguities and raises ethical concerns of its own. Moreover, it signals that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet are once again prepared to walk away rather than deal with the mess they created when they hired Stephens away from The Wall Street Journal in 2017. Stephens is not just a Pulitzer Prize-winning #NeverTrump conservative; he is also someone who regularly engages in trollish behavior seemed mainly designed to call attention to himself at the expense of the Times’ reputation.

At a moment when Jews are under attack both in New York and nationally, it was unconscionable for Stephens, who is himself Jewish, to add fuel to pernicious, discredited theories about race and intelligence. I hope we learn in the days ahead that Stephens didn’t walk away quite as unscathed as it would appear.

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Outrage fades quickly over Trump fanboy’s campaign to embarrass the media

Meet the press. 2019 White House photo.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

We’ve become accustomed to Trump outrages that seem OMG in the moment only to fade quickly into obscurity — replaced, as such things inevitably are, by the next insult, outburst or tweet. But even by those standards, a New York Times story reporting that Republican operatives with White House ties were seeking to embarrass President Trump’s adversaries in the media had an unusually short half-life.

Yes, there were stern condemnations from the usual suspects. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger posted a memo to the staff calling it “an unprecedented campaign,” saying of the operatives: “Their goal is to silence critics and undermine the public’s faith in independent journalism.” A CNN spokesman said that when government officials and their allies “threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”

Others, though, were less impressed with this latest so-called threat to the First Amendment. Will Sommer of The Daily Beast tweeted, “This piece sure makes a big deal about a couple of guys using Twitter Advanced Search.”

CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote that another Daily Beast reporter, Maxwell Tani, had actually revealed the existence of the campaign, and of Trump fanboy Arthur Schwartz’s involvement, many months ago. And Jack Shafer of Politico saw no problem with digging up social-media dirt on journalists, citing similar efforts by watchdog groups such as Media Matters for America on the left and, many years earlier, Accuracy in Media on the right.

“As much as I would like to sympathize with my fellow journalists,” Shafer wrote, “it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask them to own or repudiate vile or impolitic things they might have stated in the past. Nor is it remotely unfair for the president’s supporters to demand that journalists, who are forever denouncing him as a racist (because he is), be held accountable for their bigoted speech, on Twitter or anywhere else.”

Here’s the background according to the Times story, reported by Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters. Schwartz, an ally of Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon, has reportedly gathered material on journalists at several news organizations perceived to be hostile to the president, including the Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. The fruits of Schwartz’s labors were on display recently when a Times editor named Tom Wright-Piersanti was forced to apologize after Breitbart reported that he had posted anti-Semitic tweets many years earlier.

The Breitbart hit, in turn, was supposedly in retaliation for a Times story on the checkered past of Trump’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who reportedly has a history of unethical workplace behavior as well as two drunken-driving arrests.

“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots,” Schwartz tweeted after the Breitbart story on Wright-Piersanti was published. “Lots more where this came from.”

What’s fair is fair? Not quite. There are, in fact, some troubling aspects to all this. Unlike Shafer’s examples, Media Matters and Accuracy in Media, Schwartz’s shop has ties to the White House. It’s not entirely clear how close those ties are, but they’re close enough that we ought to be concerned. The First Amendment, after all, was designed to protect the press so it could monitor the powerful, not protect the powerful so they can monitor the press.

Moreover, we expect our leaders and the people who work for them to meet certain basic moral and ethical standards, or at least we used to. Journalists, on the other hand, are judged by their work. If what they report is true and fair, then it should be irrelevant whether they drink to excess, jaywalk, or posted embarrassing and offensive tweets years ago.

Tom Jones put it this way in The Poynter Report: “Yes, absolutely, the media should be held accountable, too. But stories published or aired by reputable news organizations stand up to scrutiny through the use of facts, sources and citations. Because this [Schwartz’s] operation can’t discredit such stories, the next best thing to do is discredit the journalists and outlets by combing through tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts from years gone by.”

As attacks on the media go, this is fairly small. It’s not as serious as calling news organizations “Enemies of the People,” or banning reporters from the White House, or putting the safety of journalists at risk by whipping up angry mobs at Trump rallies.

But it erodes the norms of democracy around the edges, contributing to Trump’s meta-narrative that the press is just another partisan player that his devoted followers need not take seriously.

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Thunder on the left: The New York Times gets an earful from its most loyal readers

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.

From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.

In sifting through Baquet’s remarks as well as those of the Times’ critics and defenders, it strikes me that the dispute is over two conflicting views of journalism’s role in covering a uniquely awful and dangerous presidency. The two sides are talking past each other, in large measure because much of what they say sounds similar. That is, they are on parallel tracks that never quite meet.

The Baquet side is that the Times is aggressively covering a terrible president, and is now in the midst of shifting from the Russia investigation to race. In this view, the coverage has been relentlessly harsh and negative (and accurate) but based on traditional journalistic values such as the respect accorded any president and the reality that Trump’s supporters need to be understood and explained.

“Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” Baquet said at the town hall meeting. In fact, that’s pretty much the same view expressed by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron when he said, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.” Like many other observers, I give the Post higher marks than the Times in not normalizing this most abnormal of presidents. But, fundamentally, Baquet and Baron are on the same page.

The critics’ view is that even tough-minded accountability journalism is not enough for a president who regularly expresses racist opinions and enacts racist policies, who gladly accepted foreign intervention in the 2016 election, and who is undermining democratic norms through his lies, his attacks on the media, and his false claims that the electoral system is rigged against him.

As Ashley Feinberg put it in Slate, “the problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.”

Liberal criticism of the Times may have reached the point of absurdity with Sunday’s unsparing profile of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s thuggish anti-immigration policies. The headline in the print edition, “Shift Against Immigration Lifted a Young Firebrand,” drew howls from the left for not clearly labeling Miller a racist. The comedian Frank Conniff tweeted: “NY Times today called Stephen Miller a ‘young firebrand.’ Also once described Norman Bates as the ‘reclusive iconoclast of the hospitality industry.’”

In fact, the headline wasn’t nearly as bad as the one from El Paso that caused such an uproar earlier this month: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” And, as with that first headline, the digital version was better, if more neutral than Trump critics might like: “How Stephen Miller Seized the Moment to Battle Immigration.” Besides, the story, by Jason DeParle, was first-rate.

The real issue over the two headlines may be the declining importance of the print product as well as the difficulty of writing good headlines in small spaces. As Baron once said, “ I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese.”

There are larger forces at work in the liberal critique of the Times as well. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen observes, the Times, like all newspapers, is far more dependent on revenues from its readers as it shifts its business model from advertising to digital subscriptions. And many of those customers have taken to social media to let the Times know it when they don’t like what they see.

More to the point, the Times may very well have gotten Trump elected because of its obsession with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business. The Times’ coverage of the email story reached its ludicrous apogee with an over-the-top front page after then-FBI Director James Comey announced he had reopened the investigation just before the election — a blow from which her campaign did not recover, even after Comey said “never mind” a week later.

In Rosen’s view, the Times’ coverage of Clinton amounts almost to an original sin, and the paper has never come to terms with its readers — who, he writes, “are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.”

Of course, the reason that the Times has come under fire from liberals is that they see it as their paper. Whatever criticisms they give voice to are mild compared to the vitriol from the right — as we’ve experienced in recent days with the reaction of Newt Gingrich and others to the Times’ 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in what became the United States. The 1619 Project promises to be a landmark achievement for the Times, which makes it all the more appalling that right-wing critics would rather defend white supremacy than come to terms with slavery’s legacy.

As Baquet said during the meeting with his staff, “Look, we are scrutinized. I ran another newspaper [the Los Angeles Times]. I’ve never seen anything like this. We are scrutinized more than any other news organization in the country, in the world probably. To be frank, some of that comes with being the biggest and, I would argue, the best. And as hard as it is to do this, I think we have to accept it.”

Baquet is right. As good as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are, the Times is still our best, most comprehensive general-interest newspaper. It is far from perfect. I’m still angry about the way it covered the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Whitewater non-scandal, and, yes, the 2016 campaign. If you’d like to go back a century, Walter Lippmann wrote that it blew the Russian Revolution and its aftermath as well.

But the Times’ journalistic values — offering a tough but straight report on what its editors have judged to be the most important news of the day — are always going to clash with the wishes of some of its audience to see their opinions and beliefs affirmed rather than challenged.

The Times has gone too far in normalizing Trump and Trumpism, and it often falls short on tone and emphasis. But you know what? We can adjust for that. It’s worth it.

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How should the media cover (and not cover) mass shootings and white nationalist terror?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Amid the carnage in El Paso and Dayton, a smaller story played out this week. It’s worth recounting because it has much to tell us about where we are at as a nation — and about the challenges facing journalism as we try to figure out how to cover this awful moment in our history.

The story is about Cesar Sayoc, a Florida man who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending pipe bombs to a number of well-known Democrats and media organizations. Fortunately, the bombs did not detonate. In a pre-sentencing letter to the judge, his lawyers wrote that Sayoc was motivated in part by his devotion to President Trump.

“He truly believed wild conspiracy theories he read on the internet, many of which vilified Democrats and spread rumors that Trump supporters were in danger because of them,” according to the letter. “He heard it from the President of the United States. A man with whom he felt he had a deep personal connection.”

Sayoc, needless to say, is responsible for his own actions. But the particular direction in which his demons took him is worth pondering. For many years now, long before he began running for president, Donald Trump has been inflaming the passions of racial hatred, from the Central Park Five to the four congresswomen known as “the Squad.”

Sayoc’s case is important because it bears directly on the massacre in El Paso, where a shooter killed 22 people in the name of a warped, racist ideology that sounded very much like what we hear from Trump on a daily basis — anti-immigrant and anti-“invasion,” with allusions to the so-called replacement theory popular on the far right that elites want to supplant white people with people of color. (No motive has been established in the Dayton shootings, which claimed nine lives.)

In the midst of all this, our leading news organizations remain perplexed at what to do. The New York Times, which on Monday published a valuable, eye-opening front-page story by Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear documenting the parallels between the shooter’s language and Trump’s, lapsed into normalizing this most abnormal of presidents just a few hours later.

Here’s how the lead headline for the next day’s print edition summarized Trump’s remarks, in which he denounced the very white supremacist forces he has fueled: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” It was tone-deaf and offensive, and it was soon changed to “Assailing Hate but Not Guns.” But considerable damage had already been done, as the first headline set off a firestorm in media circles and on Twitter.

Jon Allsop, who writes the Columbia Journalism Review’s daily newsletter, called the original headline “particularly egregious” and quoted a tweet from the freelance journalist Yashar Ali: “I have never received more texts from furious NYT reporters/writers than I have tonight. They feel like their hard work is being sullied by a horrible headline. And they’re all blaming [executive editor] Dean Baquet.” As I’ve written previously, even though the Times’ reporting is unmatched, its tone in covering Trump is sometimes weirdly timid and deferential, as if it were covering a speech by Dwight Eisenhower in 1957.

The shootings also pose a dilemma because they weave together several different threads, each of which arguably ought to be covered in different ways. There is the publicity-seeking-gunman angle, which suggests that the media should minimize coverage to the extent possible so as not to inspire copycats. There is the white nationalist angle, which suggests just the opposite — that we need to know as much as we can about home-grown terrorism inspired by racism and hate. And, of course, there is the ever-present gun-control angle.

The story of how white nationalism has emerged as our leading terrorist threat appears to be breaking through. This Axios round-up shows how extensive the coverage has been in recent days. Never mind that white supremacists have always been more of a danger in the United States than Muslim extremists. What matters is that the media and public officials are finally talking about it, and the message appears to be resonating.

Gun control is another matter. We’ve been covering the story of government’s refusal to do anything significant about gun violence for many years now. If the public doesn’t understand that the main obstacles are the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party, then it just hasn’t been paying attention. Still, we can always do better.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wonders if the time has come for journalists to take on more of an advocacy role. “Can the news media really go on a righteous crusade about gun laws — or about identifying white supremacy — while maintaining their roles as truth-tellers?” she asks. Her answer: “Maybe we in the news media don’t really expect to help achieve different results. But if journalism is to be true to its public-service role, we must.”

Sullivan’s view is ultimately an optimistic one, so perhaps I should end this right there. But we all know that the hopeful approach isn’t always the right approach. And so I’ll leave you with this essay in The Atlantic by John Temple, who was editor of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver at the time of Columbine shootings in 1999 — the incident that, along with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, set off the modern era of mass killings.

Temple tell us that “despite our dedication to the work, despite the countless investigations, projects, and special reports, it feels like nothing has changed. Columbine, if anything, opened a door that we can’t close. Copycats saw what happened and learned their own lessons.” He concludes: “Journalists feel the need to bear witness. But to the same horror, again and again? I can’t say anymore that I believe we learn from terrible things. I can say that I’ve seen the limits of journalism — and of hope. And I’m struggling with what to do about it.”

So here’s my short list of what we ought to do: Stop normalizing Trump and his hateful rhetoric. Tell the story of white nationalist terrorism. Push for gun-control laws, guided by experts who understand what works and what doesn’t.

And be humble enough to realize, as Temple does, that journalism can only accomplish so much.

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