Trump goes to war against government-subsidized media

Photo (cc) 2006 by Melissa Gira.

Previously published at GBH News.

After Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reported that President Donald Trump had derided Americans who’ve died in war as “losers” and “suckers,” Trump did what he always does. He attacked Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the venerable magazine, as a “slimeball.” He urged his followers to launch a campaign aimed at harassing The Atlantic’s principal owner, Laureen Powell Jobs. And he called on Fox News to fire reporter Jennifer Griffin for having the temerity to verify Goldberg’s reporting.

As with past outbursts, in which he’s labeled journalists “enemies of the people,” threatened to weaken libel protections and mocked a reporter with a disability, Trump was all bark, no bite. The First Amendment, after all, is a formidable bulwark against attacks on freedom of the press.

But what if Trump actually had the power to do something about journalism that he doesn’t like? Unfortunately, we already know the answer. A number of media organizations operate under government auspices, and until recently they’ve enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for independence and truth-telling. Now, though, they are in danger of being dismantled or turned into organs of Trumpist propaganda.

In each case, the threats are different; some are farther along than others. But they are real, and they are worth watching closely. At this point, it’s probably not too late to undo the damage. But it could spell the end if Trump wins re-election. I’ll take them one at a time.

• Stars and Stripes. If you were half-paying attention last week, you might have thought that Trump intervened to save the military newspaper Stars and Stripes from those dastardly Deep Staters at the Pentagon who wanted to shut it down.

Not true. In fact, the White House had been planning to put the legendary paper out of business for months, and only reversed course when the president saw saving it as an expedient way to divert attention from The Atlantic’s story.

“We trimmed the support for Stars and Stripes because we need to invest that money, as we did with many, many other programs, into higher-priority issues,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was quoted as saying last February. Yet operating the paper cost just $15.5 million in a defense budget of $700 billion.

The fate of Stars and Stripes — launched during the Civil War — came to a head last Friday, when USA Today reported that the defunding timetable had been moved up and that the paper would close by the end of September. Fortunately, Trump simultaneously found himself under fire for reportedly denigrating the country’s war dead, leading to the president’s announcement that he was saving Stars and Stripes. As Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times tweeted, “I think the Atlantic just saved some newspaper jobs.”

Reporter Helene Cooper wrote in The New York Times that Stars and Stripes has “frustrated presidents and defense secretaries” in recent years “by elevating the voices of those in uniform who contradicted commanders and political leaders.” Stars and Stripes ombudsman Ernie Gates told Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review that even if Trump wasn’t directly involved in the decision to cut funding, “three-plus years of the message that ‘the press is the enemy of the people’ emboldened some in the Pentagon who regard Stars and Stripes’ independent reporting as an annoyance.”

The Trump administration tried to silence that critical voice, and the president backed down to solve a political problem. If he gets a second term, you can be sure he’ll try again.

• Voice of America. Founded in 1942, Voice of America was best known during the Cold War for broadcasting news to residents of communist countries behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain. The service has always enjoyed a reputation for providing reliable information. After all, citizens of those regimes were already being subjected to a steady diet of propaganda. Voice of America aimed to counter that with the truth.

VOA continues to be a vital source of news and information around the world — or at least it did until recently, when Trump put Steve Bannon associate Michael Pack in charge. As Julian Borger reported in The Guardian, Pack has led a purge of journalists at VOA, claiming without evidence that they represented a threat to national security, sparking a revolt among the staff.

Shawn Powers, who recently left a top position at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, told NPR media reporter David Folkenflik: “What we’re seeing now is the step-by-step and wholescale dismantling of the institutions that protect the independence and the integrity of our journalism.”

A great deal of work would have to be done to repair VOA and restore its reputation. Needless to say, that isn’t going to happen during a second Trump term.

• National Public Radio. Unlike Voice of America and Stars and Stripes, NPR, our leading free, nonprofit source of news, is not under the direct control of the Trump administration. Very little of its funding comes from the government — although dues from member stations are its largest source of funding, and some of those stations are highly dependent on government money.

Which is to say that NPR is relatively immune from retribution, though not as immune as, say, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
NPR is hardly a bastion of the Resistance. If you listen regularly, you’ll often hear the network’s journalists bend over backwards to normalize this most abnormal of presidents. But, to their credit, they have their limits, and they push back in defense of their reporting.

The most recent example arose after 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters, two fatally, in Kenosha, Wisconsin — protests sparked by the unprovoked police shooting of Jacob Blake. Trump claimed that Rittenhouse appeared to have acted in self-defense, a claim for which NPR said Trump had “no evidence” because, well, there wasn’t. Rittenhouse may have been afraid, but that doesn’t make it self-defense.

NPR’s straight-up reporting brought about calls on the right to defund NPR. That, in turn, led to a timid column by NPR public editor Kelly McBride, who wrote, “The evidence may be confusing or inconclusive, but it exists, and it’s inaccurate to say that Trump had none.”

Trump himself did not specifically call for funds to be cut — but he has in the past. Last February, after NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly conducted a tough but fair interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump called it a “very good question” as to why the organization received public funds. Moreover, Trump has sought the zeroing out of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund both NPR and PBS.

During his more than three and a half years in the White House, and for that matter over the course of his entire career, Trump has made it clear that he’ll do anything to silence and punish critics. On one level, his assault on the mainstream media has been ineffective; but on another, it’s worked brilliantly, since he has succeeded in delegitimizing them as “fake news” in the eyes of his followers.

The threat facing media institutions tied to the government is more direct, more serious — and, if Trump manages to win a second term, perhaps insurmountable.

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Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra weighs in on sexual harassment

At a moment when large swaths of the entertainment business and news media are melting down as long-suppressed tales of sexual harassment are coming out into the open, Boston Globe Media president and chief financial officer Vinay Mehra has sent a memo to the staff on how the Globe would handle such issues. Among other things, Mehra said that employees will undergo mandatory training, and that anyone who has been subjected to harassment “should not hesitate to speak confidentially and without fear of retaliation with whomever you feel comfortable.”

The Globe recently published a couple of important articles on sexual harassment at the Statehouse (by columnist Yvonne Abraham) and in the restaurant business (by food critic Devra First). No institution is immune, of course, and it would be interesting to see how the Globe — or any news organization — would report on itself if such accusations were leveled. NPR has certainly had to dive deeply into this with the exposure and subsequent firing of top news executive Michael Oreskes. NPR chief executive Jarl Mohn, who has come under criticism for his handling of the Oreskes matter, said Tuesday that he will take a health-related leave of absence.

A source sent a copy of Mehra’s memo to me a short time ago. Here is the full text.

Dear Staff,

I’m reaching out to address the many conversations that are happening in and outside of Boston Globe Media about sexual harassment and overall conduct in the workplace, particularly in the media industry.

We are a company that deeply values equality, diversity, and individuality. We know that we thrive individually and collectively when everyone feels safe and respected. We do not tolerate harassment of any kind, and we have a set of policies and processes for reporting and responding to misconduct, which I’d like to lay out here.

We will look into all allegations of harassment and related conduct, and will act on them accordingly. Please find attached, the company’s sexual harassment policy that has been in effect since ownership under the New York Times. We have made updates to make our policy more comprehensive and have identified specific individuals within HR to address issues.

You should not hesitate to speak confidentially and without fear of retaliation with whomever you feel comfortable — your manager, HR, Legal, or with any team leader or executive in this company.  If you experience misconduct of any kind, we want to give you every opportunity to be heard through a vehicle of your choice so that we can attempt to address your concerns promptly and confidentially.

We also hope you’ll take seriously the workplace conduct trainings we will be conducting online and in person over the next few months. Employees will receive an invitation from HR within the next month to a mandatory online training.

We are a stronger and more inclusive company when these issues are raised and acted on. Thank you as always for your hard work and your commitment to our organization.

Vinay

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I will vote against Donald Trump. There, I said it.

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.
Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump represents a challenge on many levels. One of those challenges is to the traditionally independent role of journalists—even opinion journalists like me. Because I’m in a position to express my opinions freely, I am not violating any ethical standard by saying that I think Trump is a racist demagogue who advocates violence and who is, in my view, the greatest threat to American democracy since the Great Depression.

What I always refrain from doing, though, is saying whom I’ll vote for. If you read me (thank you), you can probably guess at least 95 percent of the time. But I don’t take that last step. I have opinions, but I support no one. Nor do I make political donations, or put signs on our lawn or bumper stickers on my car.

Trump, though, is a clear and present danger to our country. NPR recently tied itself up in knots because Cokie Roberts—a commentator who is supposedly free to offer her opinions—wrote an anti-Trump column co-bylined with her husband, Steve Roberts. Like a lot of observers, I found that to be incredible. So let me tell you right now:

I will not vote for Trump. Assuming that Trump wins the Republican nomination and there is no viable independent candidate whom I prefer, I will vote for the Democratic candidate, most likely Hillary Clinton. If Bernie Sanders somehow manages to wrest the nomination from Clinton, I’ll vote for him.

I also hope the Republicans somehow find a way to deny Trump the nomination at their national convention this summer, which could happen if he’s ahead but commands less than a majority of the delegates. Trump has threatened us with riots if he’s spurned in such fashion, but that’s all the more reason to keep him off the ballot, not to retreat.

No, I’m not going to send Clinton a check or put a bumper sticker on my car. But I’m abandoning my independence just this once to make it clear that I will vote against Donald J. Trump.

How social media contribute to ‘remote-control terrorism’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

NEW YORK — Tracking “remote control terrorism,” showing climate change’s impact and following readers’ shifts to mobile devices were panel highlights at last weekend’s Columbia Journalism School reunion.

Top reporters stressed the so-called Islamic State’s ability to innovate, forge social media connections and take “credit” for terrorist attacks it didn’t plan.

NPR counterterrorism expert Dina Temple-Raston noted that while U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are a “matrix,” ISIS keeps experimenting and improving their outreach to alienated youths.

“Don’t over-ascribe associations” between ISIS and every case of violence, she said. “But they’re very careful to take credit” for such incidents.

Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner expanded on that. “An obsessive focus on ‘who gives the orders’” for a terrorist attack misses the point, she said. You can find “inspiration online.” You don’t have to go to Yemen for training.

“The remote-control terrorist” is a new phenomenon, said Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge. With social media, today’s teenagers can have “one-on-one intimacy” with ISIS recruiters without the need for face-to-face contact.

A former Al Jazeera English producer and host, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, said that framing the war against terror as a “clash of civilizations plays into ISIL’s hands. Two to three weeks of incessant texting” can convince alienated youths to adapt terrorism as a way of defending their culture.

It’s not easy being green

Climate change is a concept that’s hard to grasp. But its effects are real, and ClimateWire editor John Fialka tries to deliver the message through stories that use popular-culture references.

An example this week cites “Game of Thrones”: “As fans well know, winter is coming. But they might not realize some people are using the HBO megahit’s catchphrase to spark a conversation about shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change.”

Former Associated Press environmental journalist Dina Cappiello said the topic is underreported because “politics dictates where the coverage goes.” Now with a public relations firm, she said 2016 presidential voters will focus on health care, the economy and their own jobs — not on the environment.

Serving the mobile audience

How to give time-starved mobile device clickers both what they need to know and what they want to know?

Lydia Polgreen, New York Times deputy international editor, said her paper’s “future lies in figuring out what 20 stories each reader wants to know.”

She said the Times hopes to provide a personal and a general experience. The challenge is how to preserve the serendipity of riffling through the paper and finding interesting stories about random topics — while giving them what they need to know.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

A limited trademark ruling leads to tabloid gold

As this NPR story makes clear, the Washington Redskins trademark ruling will have little effect. The trademark continues to exist even without federal registration, and the team will still be able to sue in civil court for trademark infringement.

So what do we have on the front page of today’s Boston Herald? School mascots under attack! Including, for some reason, the Warriors.

They Posted Clickbait So They’d All Get Rich. What Happened Next Made Them Cry.

WGBH forum
From left: Raney Aronson Rath, deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” who introduced the panel: moderator Joshua Benton, Tim O’Brien, Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman. Photo by Lisa Palone via Twitter.

Cross-posted at WGBH News.

Have we reached the limits of clickbait media exemplified by The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed? According to three experts on Internet journalism, the answer is yes.

At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)

“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”

As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”

Shirky and his fellow panelists — Tim O’Brien, publisher of Bloomberg View, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton — noted that the revenue model being pursued by the Times and others is essentially the same as the system that funds public media outlets such as WGBH, WBUR, NPR and the like.

O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.

To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.

Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.

Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.

That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.

Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.

By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”

Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997

On Feb. 6, 1997, just after the debut of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix on the state of the city’s two major public broadcasters, WGBH and WBUR. It was the first time I’d met the host, Emily Rooney. The original is online here, but, as you will see, it’s unreadable; thus, I have reproduced it in full below. In re-reading it, I was struck by what an interesting moment in time that was, with many of the same names and issues still with us 17 years later.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

Copyright © 1997 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

GB_largeplayerEmily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

This is, after all, the first significant foray into local public-affairs programming for WGBH (Channels 2 and 44, plus a radio station) since 1991, when it canceled The Ten O’Clock News. The new show is a huge improvement over the one it replaces, The Group, an unmoderated roundtable discussion that rose from the ashes of the News. (“A tawdry, pathetic little show,” huffs one industry observer of The Group, widely derided as “The Grope.”) Still, Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.

It’s crucial that ’GBH get it right. With commercial broadcasters in full retreat from serious news and public affairs, public-broadcasting stations are the last redoubt. Boston’s two major public stations — WGBH-TV and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) — are among the most admired in the country. It’s by no means clear, however, that the people who run those stations are willing or able to fill the gap created by the commercial stations’ retreat into sensationalism and frivolity. Continue reading “Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997”

A compelling case for ‘knowledge-based journalism’

9780345806604This review was previously published in The Huffington Post.

In the early 1990s the media identified an existential threat: violent crime. Sparked by high-profile cases such as the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Polly Klaas, and the fatal shooting of six passengers on a train in Long Island, news outlets from local television to Time magazine elevated criminal carnage above all other issues.

Such relentlessness brought results. By mid-1994, 40 percent of Americans were telling Gallup that crime was the country’s leading problem. Elected officials responded by passing laws mandating tougher prison sentences and by building new prisons. Within 10 years, the United States was locking up a higher proportion of its population than other country.

But there was something fundamentally wrong with all this. As Thomas E. Patterson describes it in his new book, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage), violent crime was actually on the decline in the early ’90s — including a 4 percent drop from 1993 to ’94. Thus journalistic malpractice led to policy malpractice, with consequences we continue to live with today.

Patterson is a longtime journalism and media observer as well as the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (Disclosure: He is also a friendly acquaintance.) The essence of his  argument is that it’s no longer enough (if it ever was) for journalists to describe what they learn from interviews and direct observation. They also need to know what’s true and what’s false, and to incorporate such knowledge into what they convey to the public.

“Today’s journalists,” Patterson writes, “use reporting tools that were developed more than a century ago and were better suited to the demands of that age than to those of today, where manufactured consent, clever fabrications, and pumped-up claims are everyday assaults on the public’s sense of reality. … Knowledge-based journalism would provide the steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news that Americans now lack, but sorely need.”

As the example of violent crime suggests, knowledge-based journalism should be grounded in a way of thinking. It’s never been a secret that the U.S. Department of Justice compiles crime statistics, and of course today those numbers are far easier to access than they were 20 years ago. Thus the key is for reporters, editors and news directors to seek out the truth and resist the urge to pander. Obviously that’s easier said than done. The spirit of Walter Lippmann’s quest for scientific journalism permeates “Informing the News,” but as Patterson notes, it has never pervaded more than a fraction of the news media.

Patterson is especially strong in describing the confluence of mindless objectivity and a lack of knowledge. When a journalist doesn’t understand the truth of what he is covering, it’s all too easy simply to present different viewpoints and leave it up to the reader, the viewer or the listener to decide. “The objective model of American journalism offers a weak defense against factual distortions,” Patterson writes. “Not only does the commitment to balance invite such distortions, it allows them to pass unchecked.”

Yet even an empiricist like Patterson can’t overcome human psychology. And one of the obstacles to knowledge-based journalism is that we are wired to adhere closely to our beliefs, regardless of whether they are grounded in reality. Patterson presents research by the Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan showing that we tend to cling to misinformation even more tightly after our errors have been pointed out to us.

In a world in which comfortingly false information is never more than a click of the mouse or the cable box away, it is unclear how knowledge-based journalism would reach an audience larger than the one that already seeks reliable news. It is, after all, the genius of the right that it has managed to convince large swaths of the public that The New York Times and NPR are merely liberal equivalents of the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh. Patterson describes the problem, but he doesn’t propose a solution. And it’s hard to imagine what a solution would look like.

So how are we to move in the direction of knowledge-based journalism? Patterson writes that “the university rather than the newsroom is the logical place to develop it,” and he calls for reforms in journalism education along the lines proposed by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education — the most relevant being “expertise in the specific subjects to be reported on.” At the very least, journalists should make use of nonpartisan repositories such as the Shorenstein Center’s own Journalist’s Resource, which compiles data and studies in areas ranging from human rights to climate change.

Patterson has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of what we should expect of journalism at a time when media outlets are multiplying, revenues are shrinking and opinion is elevated over fact-based reporting. Whether we actually embrace knowledge-based journalism or not, he has underscored journalism’s basic mission: to provide the public with the information it needs to govern itself in a democratic society.

Celebrating 25 years of Cambridge Community TV

kennedy & young

Old friend Robin Young of WBUR and NPR’s “Here & Now” and I were named honorary board members of Cambridge Community Television on Wednesday evening. The occasion was CCTV’s annual barbecue, held in the back lot at the Central Square facility. There’s more here (pdf).

The highlight of the evening came when Susan Fleischmann was honored for her 25 years at the helm of CCTV, which itself was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Local access cable operations are a key part of the independent media ecosystem.

I don’t live in Cambridge, so I don’t get to see CCTV. But it strikes me as an unusually rich and sophisticated operation, with three channels, lots of local programming and training sessions for youth and adults.

Many thanks to the folks at CCTV for their hospitality and their good work.

Photo by Wilder Bunke.

Shuffling the deck at WGBH Radio

WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) has announced some changes to its schedule that suggest station executives are planning to up the ante in their competition with WBUR (90.9 FM) for the news-and-information audience on public radio.

Disclosure for those who don’t know: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” and appear occasionally on the radio station as well.

The most significant move is that “Eric in the Evening,” the daily jazz program hosted by Eric Jackson, is being cut back and moved to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 p.m. to midnight. It’s a shame, but I suspect not many people listen to terrestrial jazz radio in the age of Pandora.

The individual one-hour local talk shows hosted by Emily Rooney and Callie Crossley will be melded into a two-hour block called “Boston Public Radio” that will be hosted by Crossley on weekdays from noon to 2 p.m. Crossley will be joined by Rooney, Kara Miller, Adam Reilly, Jared Bowen and others. “Boston Public Radio” will be rebroadcast Monday through Thursday from 9 to 11 p.m.

Two NPR staples are notably absent from the line-up: “Fresh Air” and “The Diane Rehm SEO Services Show.” (Update: The original schedule sent by WGBH had nothing listed for 10 to 11 a.m. Turns out that’s when “Diane Rehm” will be broadcast.)

The full text of the WGBH press release appears after the jump, supplemented by a few additions emailed in response to an inquiry. Continue reading “Shuffling the deck at WGBH Radio”