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Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the public editor

Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the ombudsperson, sometimes known as the public editor — an in-house journalist who holds their own news organization to account. As she observes, at one time such positions were common at large media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

They were eliminated, for the most part, when financial pressures made such a position seem like an unaffordable luxury. But as Stohr argues, with the Times and the Globe once again profitable and growing, “They can easily bring them back as a signal that they value public trust.” (Note: Stohr interviewed me.)

I suggested the Globe bring back its ombudsperson last spring after the paper published an extensive correction about a story involving top executives at the MBTA who were reportedly working from distant locales. Instead, the Globe fired the lead reporter, Andrea Estes, and has never really offered an explanation as to what went wrong. Estes, a respected investigative journalist, is now working at the Plymouth Independent, a new nonprofit edited by Mark Pothier, himself a former top Globe editor.

As far as I know, the only major news organization that still has a public editor is NPR, where those duties are carried out by Kelly McBride, who’s also senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. Meanwhile, as Stohr writes, the Times is increasingly under fire on social media from liberal critics who complain that the paper normalizes Donald Trump by treating him like a typical presidential candidate rather than as someone facing 91 criminal charges who attempted to foment an insurrection. I largely share that critique, although I think some of it is overblown.

The presence of a public editor, Stohr writes, “can help journalists be more self-aware while not placing the burden of public criticism on individual reporters, who are usually not in a position to make the sort of organization-wide changes that are often necessary to restore public confidence.”

The public editor was not a perfect institution by any means. Partly it depends on the skill of the person doing it. The Times’ next-to-last public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was the best I can think of, and Stohr quotes a post Sullivan wrote on Twitter/X arguing that the Times needs to bring that position back. Partly it depends on how willing top editors are to provide access. (Sullivan, who still writes media criticism for The Guardian and her own newsletter, is now executive director at the Craig Newmark Center on Journalism Ethics & Security at the Columbia School of Journalism.)

But there are certain things an in-house critic can do that an outside commentator can’t. A public editor has the time to dig deeply and, if they have the cooperation and support of the top leadership, can make a real contribution in helping the public understand why certain decisions are made. And, sometimes, what the story was behind mistakes and misjudgments.

More: There is still an Organization of News Ombudsmen, though I don’t know how active it is. If you look at the U.S. members, you’ll see that most of them hold titles like “managing editor for standards.” I should have noted that PBS has a public editor, Ric Sandoval-Palos.

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Bob Edwards, 1947-2024

One of the hazards of working as a media critic for many years is that you’ll inevitably run afoul of people you admire. There was, for instance, the time that Mike Wallace called me a “son of a bitch.” And Bob Edwards, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” once complained bitterly to me in an email about something that I wrote — and used a general mailbox so I couldn’t respond. Edwards, a steadfast companion to millions on their morning commutes until he was forcibly retired in 2004, has died at the age of 76. He and his incomparable voice will be missed.

Correction: It turns out that Wallace called me a “bastard,” not a “son of a bitch.” Much better!

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A quick guide to the debt ceiling crisis. Or, why it’s all the Republicans’ fault.

There must be a $1 trillion platinum coin in there somewhere. Photo (cc) 2016 by cweyant.

I imagine most readers of this blog understand the ins and outs of the debt ceiling fiasco, but in case you don’t, a brief explanation.

The debt ceiling is an extra, and entirely unnecessary, appendage to the work of passing budgets and appropriating money. Congress gets to debate what should go into the budget, and that’s an opportunity for those who want hold down spending to make their case and put it to a vote. But once the budget is passed, that’s the end (or at least it should be), and if the executive needs to borrow money to fulfill that budget, then so be it.

For the past century, though, congressional action has been needed to approve more borrowing, even though that borrowing is to cover spending that has already been approved, and in many cases has already taken place. No one thought much about it until recently, but in 2011 congressional Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama made concessions, and now House Republicans are attempting to do the same with President Biden.

The only other Western democracy that countenances this foolishness is Denmark. Try buying a car with a loan and then telling the finance company that your family has voted not to approve the monthly payments. Bye bye car.

You’ll note that this only happens when there’s a Democratic president and one or both branches of Congress is controlled by Republicans. President Trump ran up enormous deficits, and the debt ceiling was routinely increased on a bipartisan basis to accommodate those deficits. Other than a few rogue individual votes here and there, Democrats have never sought to exploit the debt ceiling, because — whatever their faults — they belong to a party that believes in basic governance.

Sadly, though, the debt ceiling negotiations have occasioned an outpouring of terrible both-sides media coverage. Gosh, why can’t Democrats and Republicans come together for the good of the country?

Click on image of post to follow link to the NPR story

The hypocrisy and phoniness surrounding this issue are why a lot of observers are calling on Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment, which states in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Or to mint the coin.

In any case, if and when Democrats are fully in power again, they ought to repeal the debt ceiling so we can go about our business like a normal country.

The Twitter logjam may be starting to break as NPR says: See ya, Elon

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Despite Elon Musk’s best efforts, Twitter is still alive, more or less. From sending poop emojis in response to media requests to putting his dog in charge of the company (what company?), Musk has demonstrated massive contempt for his customers. He’s also allowed the site to be flooded with trolls and hate speech — not that those weren’t a problem even before he bought the company.

But now there’s a chance that the logjam will finally break. After Musk labeled NPR’s Twitter feed as “state-controlled media” and then, upon reflection, changed it to “government-funded media” (it is neither, though NPR does get a tiny percentage of its revenues from government sources), NPR’s leadership finally decided it had had enough. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik writes:

NPR will no longer post fresh content to its 52 official Twitter feeds, becoming the first major news organization to go silent on the social media platform. In explaining its decision, NPR cited Twitter’s decision to first label the network “state-affiliated media,” the same term it uses for propaganda outlets in Russia, China and other autocratic countries.

Unfortunately, NPR is going to allow its journalists to make their own decision. That’s a mistake. What’s needed is to push news organizations to leave Twitter behind in order to encourage the use of alternatives, the most prominent of which (so far) is Mastodon.

From November through February, I went cold turkey, taking to Twitter only to let my followers know where else they could find me. Twitter’s weird resilience, though, led me to come back on a limited basis. I continue to do most of my social media posting on Mastodon, and I hope you’ll follow me there.

Margaret Low of WBUR tells us how public radio fits into Boston’s regional news environment

Margaret Low

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Margaret Low, the CEO of WBUR, one of Boston’s two major news-oriented public radio stations. Margaret started as CEO in January 2020. She has had a 40-plus-year career with NPR, and started as an overnight production assistant at “Morning Edition.”

At NPR, Low rose through the ranks and ended up in the top editorial job, where she oversaw 400 journalists worldwide, covering events like the Arab Spring, the re-election of Barack Obama, and the Boston Marathon bombing. She also led a digital transformation of her newsroom. She turned “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” the Saturday morning quiz show, into a live production. She came to WBUR from The Atlantic, where she was president of AtlanticLIVE and produced more than 100 live events a year.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the launch of Signal Cleveland. It’s well-funded, with $7.5 million to start with, and Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online writes that the news outlet has big goals: It wants to expand throughout Ohio within a few years.

My Quick Take is on a case in New Hampshire that is of interest to those of us who ascribe to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We’d like to think that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that you may not be punished criminally for criticizing the government. But that’s not what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decided recently. InDepthNH has a story here. The case, which has been ongoing for a number of years, garnered a New England Muzzle Award in 2019.

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NPR’s top news executive has been hired as the next editor of The Boston Globe

Nancy Barnes (via LinkedIn)

It was a little more than nine years ago that John and Linda Henry completed their purchase of The Boston Globe from the New York Times Co. But it wasn’t until today that they hired their first top news editor.

Late this afternoon the Globe announced that Nancy Barnes, currently the chief news executive at NPR, would replace longtime editor Brian McGrory on Feb. 1. McGrory said in September that he would retire at the end of the year in order to become chair of the journalism department at Boston University.

Barnes, 61, has local ties, having grown up in the Boston area and worked as an intern at the Globe and as a reporter at The Sun of Lowell earlier in her career. Before coming to NPR as senior vice president for news and editorial director in 2018, she had held the top editing jobs at the Houston Chronicle and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

Barnes’ tenure at NPR was not entirely a happy one. In September, after a new executive position was created above her, she said she would leave by the end of the year, saying, “Now is the right time for me to pursue some other opportunities.” NPR media reporter David Folkenflik wrote that Barnes could seem “aloof” at times, although he noted that she had come in under stressful circumstances: her predecessor, Michael Oreskes, had departed amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Folkenflik described her legacy in glowing terms:

Barnes helped NPR News achieve substantive accomplishments in a period buffeted by external crises that the network had to both endure and cover. She accelerated NPR’s investigative and enterprise reporting efforts; helped map out reporting on the pandemic and the war in Ukraine; and broadened the network’s coverage of issues of race, identity and social justice.

In addition, she oversaw a more aggressive stance in reporting on the growing threat to democracy from supporters of former President Donald Trump. Barnes also established a more muscular presence for the network in covering climate change. The newsroom continued to garner major accolades, winning its first Pulitzer, in collaboration with two member stations, and becoming a Pulitzer finalist several times.

Like Marty Baron, who preceded McGrory as the Globe’s editor, Barnes is an outsider. Throughout the Globe’s history, though, most of the paper’s editors, including McGrory, have been insiders. And here’s a qualification that Linda Henry cited in her memo to the staff, which appears below: Barnes has served as the top news executive at an organization other than a newspaper. As the Globe moves more into podcasts and other forms of media, Barnes will be in a good position to help lead the way.

McGrory — who did as much as anyone to recruit the Henrys as buyers for the Globe, as I described in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls” — leaves quite a legacy of his own. On McGrory’s watch, the Globe has thrived journalistically and has emerged as among a handful of large regional newspapers that have achieved financial sustainability. He was a popular metro columnist before becoming the editor, and he will write a column for the opinion section once he leaves the paper.

This is the second major hire at the Globe this year. In May, James Dao was recruited from The New York Times to edit the paper’s opinion section. Barnes and Dao will both report directly to Linda Henry, the chief executive of Boston Globe Media, and John Henry, the publisher of the Globe. Linda Henry’s full memo to the troops was fowarded to me a few hours ago by several trusted sources. Here it is in full with the exception of the search committee members, since those names would be meaningful only to Globe insiders:

A few months ago, I shared that we began a search for the next leader of the Globe’s newsroom as Brian McGrory begins his next chapter at BU and resumes a familiar, but new(ish) role as columnist for the Globe on the Opinion side. In the time since, we have met with a field of incredibly talented leaders — both inside and outside our organization — and I am thrilled to share with you today that Nancy Barnes will become the 13th editor of The Boston Globe.

Nancy, as many of you know, is an accomplished journalist and transformational leader who has held the top job at some of the largest newsrooms in the country. She currently serves as NPR’s senior vice president for news and editorial director, leading a team of more than 500 journalists and newsroom executives, with oversight of NPR’s journalism around the world and across platforms. She’s also deeply engaged in the industry, serving on the prestigious Pulitzer Prize Board, the Peabody Awards, and as a past president of the News Leaders Association.

This is somewhat of a homecoming for Nancy, who was born in Cambridge and grew up in Wilmington before moving to Virginia. She holds something in common with many of the country’s top journalists, having started her lifelong career in journalism as an intern at The Boston Globe. After college, she returned to the area to work at the Lowell Sun, and then spent a decade at the News & Observer [of Raleigh, North Carolina]. She earned an MBA before joining the Minneapolis Star Tribune as executive editor, where she modernized their digital journalism and led the newsroom to win multiple national awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. When Nancy moved to Texas to take on the role of SVP and Executive Editor for Hearst Texas newspapers, The Houston Chronicle won its first Pulitzer Prize and was named a Pulitzer Finalist three other times during her tenure.

I’ve been delighted and inspired by my conversations with Nancy. She has shared that her priorities in this role are to tap into the tremendous innovation that our company has embraced over the last several years and to ensure that our mentorship and development for journalists at all levels of their careers remains vibrant and transformative. Nancy knows the importance of serving an engaged local audience and has a proven track record of elevating metro news outlets to their highest potential.

On top of her proven track record with metros, I was particularly inspired by all that she has learned in her time away from newspapers over the past few years, immersed in an innovative, digital-forward, and global environment at NPR. She is thrilled to return to Boston with our regional expertise, and I know that her time at NPR has given her best practices, insights, and strategies that will inform her next chapter at the Globe. I am excited for her to guide our continued digital evolution, working with the incredible team of journalists here to better serve our growing reader base.

I once again would like to share my gratitude to Brian McGrory for his bold leadership as editor over the past ten years. Under Brian’s leadership, the Globe has continuously produced ambitious journalism, inspiring the talented journalists here to be searingly relevant and relentlessly interesting. He expanded coverage, led a newsroom reinvention which engaged the entire staff, and has helped the Globe adapt during one of the most challenging times in the newspaper industry. Our work has been recognized locally and nationally with many awards, including multiple Pulitzer Prizes and most recently, the award of General Excellence in Online Journalism by the Online News Association. Today, the Globe is arguably the most successful regional news organization in the country.

Inclusive of Stat News, Boston Globe Media now has the highest number of total subscribers that this institution has had since 2008, and we continue to lead in subscription numbers among our industry peers. We are extremely proud of all the ways that this growth has fueled continuous investment in our journalism, and we look forward to building on that momentum with Nancy’s extensive industry perspective and deep journalistic experience.

Please join us tomorrow, November 15th at 2pm in the newsroom, where Brian and I will be welcoming Nancy in person and she will introduce herself in the news hub. We will send an audio link for those who are not able to join us in person. She will officially join our team on February 1, 2023 and we will plan a time for her to meet many more of you in the new year.

A special thank you to the internal team that helped with this comprehensive and inspiring search process….

Thank you,
Linda Henry

 

What, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story on SCOTUS and masks?

Nina Totenberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by the Asia Society.

It’s impossible to know what, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story about a mask dispute between Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch without also knowing the details of Totenberg’s interactions with her unnamed sources — or source.

But it has the hallmarks of a situation in which the justices, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, jumped on a small wording problem in order to back away from a controversy they regretted. Totenberg, NPR’s veteran legal affairs reporter, was the collateral damage.

It began with a report last Tuesday morning in which Totenberg noted that, since the rise of omicron, all of the justices had been wearing masks to hearings — all, that is, except Gorsuch. Sotomayor, who has diabetes and who normally sits next to Gorsuch, had been appearing remotely from her office.

Roberts, Totenberg reported, had “in some form asked the other justices to mask up,” and only Gorsuch had failed to comply.

The next day came this, also under Totenberg’s byline:

On Wednesday, Sotomayor and Gorsuch issued a statement saying that she did not ask him to wear a mask. NPR’s report did not say that she did. Then, the chief justice issued a statement saying he “did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.” The NPR report said the chief justice’s ask to the justices had come “in some form.”

NPR stands by its reporting.

So what did Roberts actually say? We don’t know. NPR’s ombudsman, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, wrote that Totenberg remained confident she got it right but was hazy on exactly how Roberts indicated to the other justices that he wanted them to wear masks. “If I knew exactly how he communicated this I would say it,” Totenberg told  McBride. “Instead I said ‘in some form.’”

McBride’s conclusion was that Totenberg’s story was essentially accurate but that she shouldn’t have used the word “asked,” even modified by “in some form.” McBride also called for a “clarification,” but not a correction, to be appended to Totenberg’s story. Which in turn led Totenberg to tell The Daily Beast, “She [McBride] can write any goddamn thing she wants, whether or not I think it’s true. She’s not clarifying anything!”

The situation reminds me of the smackdown delivered by then-special counsel Robert Mueller in early 2019 after BuzzFeed News reported that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had told investigators that Donald Trump had “directed” him to lie under oath before Congress about a Trump Tower deal in Moscow. Mueller had his spokesman characterize the story as “not accurate,” and the episode was seen as a serious blunder by BuzzFeed.

Lo and behold, several months later we learned that BuzzFeed had it right all along. If I may speculate, it looked to me like Mueller took advantage of a minor exaggeration in the story in order to denounce the whole thing at a moment when it looked like Trump might shut down the entire special counsel’s investigation. BuzzFeed was thrown under the bus, and the investigation was saved.

Totenberg’s story was the culmination of an eventful few weeks for Justice Sotomayor. On Jan. 8, Washington Post “Fact Check” columnist Glenn Kessler took her to task for saying during oral arguments, “We have over 100,000 children, which we’ve never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.” That number appeared to be 20 times higher than was actually the case. Kessler saw fit to assign her statement a “Four Pinocchios” rating, thus labeling what was almost certainly a spontaneous slip-up as a lie.

At around the same time, Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter ran a story and a photo showing a woman who was identified as Sotomayor sitting back-to at a restaurant with Democratic members of Congress. O, the hypocrisy! Except that it wasn’t Sotomayor — it was Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall. “Our tipster got it wrong, but we should have double-checked,” Politico said in its correction. No kidding.

As for whether and how Chief Justice Roberts asked “in some form” that the justices mask up, we’ll probably never know precisely what transpired. But we do know this: Every justice has been wearing a mask to oral arguments except Gorsuch. And Sotomayor didn’t feel it was safe for her to attend.

Judge partly overturns Maryland’s ban on broadcasting official courtroom audio

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 in The Baltimore Sun.

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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.

NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Conn., at the Boston demonstration against racism in August 2017. Photo (cc) 2017 by Dan Kennedy.

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.

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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.

While NPR throws softballs, the ‘PBS NewsHour’ is showing some spine

Liz Cheney takes the oath of office in 2017. Photo in the public domain.

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.

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