Now here’s an interesting First Amendment dilemma. Judges in most states have broad discretion in whether to allow television cameras or audio recorders into their courtrooms. May the government also ban news organizations from broadcasting the official audio record of a criminal proceeding?
Under Maryland state law, the answer is yes: “The Maryland Code forbids anyone, including the media, from broadcasting official court recordings of state criminal court proceedings that were lawfully obtained from the court itself,” reported McKenna Oxenden in The Baltimore Sun.
But now that law is tottering on the brink of being declared unconstitutional. As Oxenden and Michael Kunzelman of The Associated Press reported last week, a U.S. district court judge has ruled that NPR may use official audio as part of its podcast “Embedded.” An upcoming episode will focus on the trial of Jarrod Ramos, who killed five people at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2018. Ramos was found criminally responsible earlier this year. The current proceedings involve his sentencing.
Judge Richard Barrett’s ruling pertains only to NPR’s request. But a challenge to the constitutionality of the law itself is under way as well.
In defending the law, the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh disingenuously wrote that the ban, intended to maintain the “fairness and integrity” of criminal cases, does not infringe on freedom of the press because news organizations are free to use transcripts of the recordings in any way they like:
The statute does not prohibit any person from describing, transcribing, or reenacting any portion of a criminal trial. It bans only methods of communication that depict participants’ images and voices from inside the courtroom.
Bennett was having nothing of it. As the AP noted, Bennett rejected that argument in an earlier ruling, writing that the law “constitutes a prior restraint on speech that is irreparable as a matter of law.”
With the Maryland law seemingly well on the way to being overturned, it’s time to re-examine why television and radio journalists are usually banned from using the tools of their jobs when covering criminal cases. The excuse is generally the same as that advanced by Frosh — that they can attend and take notes like everyone else. But the First Amendment should guarantee that they can report from the courtroom just as they do from any other location: with video and audio so the public can see and hear how justice is being administered.
Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.
I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.
Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.
Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.
And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:
NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.
The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….
The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”
As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.
And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.
The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.
All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.
It wasn’t too many years ago when NPR was a bold, truth-telling news organization and the “PBS NewsHour” was a bastion of timidity. But at some point during the Trump era, their roles reversed. “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff and the program’s two most prominent reporters, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor and congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins, became much more assertive, challenging the powerful and demonstrating a willingness to call a lie a lie.
Rarely, though, do you get as clear-cut an example of what I’m talking about as what played out on Wednesday following U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s removal from the House Republican leadership. NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly, a journalist I respect, never pressed two young Republicans she interviewed. Woodruff, meanwhile, pinned Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, up against a wall and wouldn’t let go until it was clear that he wasn’t going to answer her questions.
Kelly’s guests were Republican strategist Antonia Ferrier and Hoover Institution fellow Lanhee Chen, both of whom were intent on pretending that the elephant in the room — the implosion of their party into a tangle of lies and conspiracy theories — didn’t actually exist. Here, for instance, is how Chen responded to Kelly’s question about what it all means:
Well, I think it’s about alternate visions, maybe not alternate, but certainly two different visions of what the future of the Republican Party looks like. Will the party be a party that is fundamentally about ideas, about concepts? Or is it going to be an idea — a party focused on one personality? And I think, you know, Liz Cheney is articulating one pathway, and others are articulating another. It’s not mutually exclusive necessarily to the extent that there are some who might believe, for example, that former President Trump should have some role or some who believe that there ought to be more of a focus on policy.
But I think what Cheney is doing is setting out a very clear contrast, and, you know, that’s sure to irk some of her colleagues. But it is, I think, an important question that Republicans need to ask, which is, what is the direction that those of us who are self-identified Republicans want to see the party go in? And what’s the best way to get there?
No, what Cheney is doing is pointing out, over and over, that Joe Biden won the November election and that Donald Trump helped incite violence on Jan. 6 in an attempt to reverse the results. That has nothing to do with “two different visions of what the future of the Republican Party looks like.”
And how did Kelly respond? “Well,” she said, “it has very clearly irked more than a few of her colleagues.” It went no better with Ferrier, who talked around the real issue at length — again, never mentioning Trump’s big lie or the insurrection. Kelly reacted by telling Ferrier that “it’s a complicated subject with a lot of nuance there. So I appreciate your laying some of that out for us.”
Meanwhile, Woodruff was politely laying into Portman, who started off by saying that “Republicans here in the House and the Senate do not question the legitimacy of Joe Biden as president.” Woodruff’s response:
Senator, as you know, there’s a contradiction, because I hear what you’re saying and I hear what Kevin McCarthy is saying about, yes, we accept Joe Biden.
But, as we all know, former President Trump does not accept that the election was held legitimately. And Liz Cheney was saying that out loud, and she’s being punished for it. So, the message is that it’s fealty to President Trump, rather than issues, that are driving the Republican Party.
Is that the right message for the future?
“No,” Portman replied before dissembling some more. Woodruff also challenged him on Republican opposition to tax hikes and to include child care and elder care in President Biden’s infrastructure bill.
Now, I will grant that there’s always a problem in trying to draw these comparisons. No doubt NPR could point to plenty of examples when they’ve been much tougher than Kelly was on Wednesday. As I said, I respect her, and maybe she’ll take a completely different tack the next time I hear her. Maybe she didn’t want to badger two young, relatively powerless interview subjects — though I hardly think that asking them the most pressing questions of the day constitutes badgering.
Overall, though, I think Wednesday’s interviews fit into what I’ve observed — that NPR and the “NewsHour” have switched roles over the past few years.
I’ve been pretty critical of the #bothsides manner in which NPR covers politics. So it’s only fair to point out that Ari Shapiro wasn’t having any of it earlier this afternoon when U.S. Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., started lauding the peaceful transfer of power.
Shapiro interrupted and reminded her that that’s exactly what we didn’t have this time. Yes, today was peaceful. The post-election period was not — especially two weeks ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”