Two in-depth reports Friday rendered what was left of Tara Reade’s credibility in tatters.
The more important was a story by the PBS NewsHour. Lisa Desjardins and Daniel Bush interviewed 74 former Joe Biden staff members, 62 of them women. And though they said Biden sometimes had trouble keeping his hands to himself (something Biden acknowledged and apologized for last year), they emphatically denied that they’d ever heard of him engaging in sexual assault.
“The people who spoke to the NewsHour,” they wrote, “described largely positive and gratifying experiences working for Biden, painting a portrait of someone who was ahead of his time in empowering women in the workplace.”
Crucially, an on-the-record source told them that there were problems with Reade’s job performance that may have led to her termination. And the place where the alleged assault took place was entirely out in the open, making it nearly impossible for Biden to have done what she claims without being seen.
Also Friday, Natasha Korecki reported for Politico that Reade has spent much of her adult life as a grifter, lying and cheating people out of money — but never, in the recollection of the people she interviewed, saying anything negative about Biden.
“Over the past decade,” Korecki wrote, “Reade has left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances in California’s Central Coast region whosay they remember two things about her — she spoke favorably about her time working for Biden, and she left them feeling duped.”
In the weeks after I wrote about the Reade case for WGBH News, I’ve gone from thinking there was a reasonable chance that she was telling the truth to now believing it’s highly likely that she made the whole thing up.
But why? Could it have something to do with her weird praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin? What should we make of the fact that her lawyer, who’s representing her for free, is a Trump donor? Or the fact that another lawyer who’s acted on her behalf has ties to Russian propaganda operations?
Ultimately Reade’s story can’t be definitively proven or disproven, but the media have done a good job of laying out the facts and showing how far-fetched it is. Now we need to know who, if anyone, was behind what appears to be a classic political dirty trick. Keep digging.
Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?
That proposition might seem ludicrous. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had mademore than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president“made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances asfalse to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.
And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, if the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?
This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.
Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.
The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?
One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.
Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.
Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.
Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.
In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.
“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”
Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.
It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.
Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”
Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.
1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.
But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.
2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.
3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.
In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.
When Boston Globe Media unveiled Stat a year ago, it struck many observers—including me—as wildly ambitious. With more than 50 employees, it was hard to imagine how the health and life-sciences site was going to make money. Gideon Gil, the co-managing editor, told me that Stat would probably start charging for some of its content, but at the time there was no plan beyond gathering data to see how that might work.
Now we’re seeing the next phase. Stat editor Rick Berke, in a letter posted online, has announced a redesign and, far more important, a premium service called Stat Plus, which will cost about $300 a year. According to Lucia Moses of Digiday, the target audience comprises “professionals working in and around the pharma and biotech industries.” The goal is to sign up 10,000 subscribers.
My first thought is: Why so little? As Moses points out, the model for this sort of thing is Politico, whose pro edition starts at $5,000 a year. Individuals aren’t likely to pay for Stat Plus; rather, it’s a business expense. On the other hand, it might make more sense to start at $300 and then add, say, an ultra-premium service later on (Stat Plus Plus?) than to start high and have to cut the price.
The purpose of Stat is two-fold: to offer high-quality journalism in a field in which Boston is a leader, and to make money that can help fund not just Stat but the Boston Globe itself. Stat‘s first year showed that it could accomplish the former. Today’s announcement is an important step toward meeting the second goal.
Donald Trump, who earlier today suggested that President Obama might somehow be linked to the Orlando shooting, has revoked the credentials of Washington Post reporters because of a headline stating that Trump had suggested Obama might somehow be linked to the Orlando shooting. Trump:
Post executive editor Marty Baron:
Donald Trump’s decision to revoke The Washington Post’s press credentials is nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press. When coverage doesn’t correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished. The Post will continue to cover Donald Trump as it has all along — honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly. We’re proud of our coverage, and we’re going to keep at it.
It was just a few weeks ago that Trump launched a Nixonesque attack on the Post and its owner, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos.
A few random thoughts.
• Shouldn’t we be suspicious of any news organization that hasn’t had its credentials revoked by the Trump campaign?
• This won’t hurt the Post a bit. Access is hugely overrated.
• I’m sorry that this is the first time I’ve written about Trump’s banishment of journalists. Previously he’s gone after Politico, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast. Yes, the Washington Post is one of our great newspapers. But Trump’s attacks on other news organizations are no less despicable.
• I’d like to see every news organization covering Trump burn their credentials and refuse to report on his events until open access is guaranteed for all.
I want to call your attention to two terrific pieces about Trump University—both published by Politico, both by people I know. As you are no doubt aware, Trump University, a dubious venture that dispensed real-estate tips and that is under investigation by the New York attorney general’s office, has become a major issue in Trump’s presidential campaign.
The first article, “I Survived Trump University,” is by my old Boston Phoenix friend Seth Gitell. Seth describes attending a 2008 session of what was then known as Trump Wealth Institute in Boston while he was working for the New York Sun. The nation’s financial system was collapsing. Seth writes:
I’d read Trump’s The Art of the Deal in college, so when I spotted an internet ad for the Trump “way to wealth” seminar, I thought it might be an interesting vantage point from which to capture the feelings of regular people at a terrible time. I was also intrigued by the idea of what strategies a figure as rich and famous as Trump could bring to the public, in the midst of a crisis to which few had any solutions.
The second piece is by Marilyn Thompson, an editor at Politico who’s currently a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, as am I. Marilyn reports on an online advice column for students of Trump U that was published under his name. “How much of ‘Ask Mr. Trump’ was written by Trump himself is, of course, open to further examination,” she writes.
Marilyn proceeds to recount what Trump told a 13-year-old boy (“Sounds like you’re a hard-working young person!”), what drives him (“I don’t have to work, I don’t have to make deals, but it’s what I enjoy”), and how he coped with the stress of being $1 billion in debt (“I started describing to everyone all of my plans for future projects and developments, and how fantastic they were going to be”).
These days, no doubt, he relieves the stress by telling his campaign officials how great that wall is going to be once he’s been elected president.
The doubts raised by Ben Carson and his defenders are beginning to recede. Politico’s story that the Republican presidential candidate had “fabricated” his oft-told tale about being offered a “free scholarship” to West Point is looking reasonably strong, though not perfect.
In an editor’s note that now appears at the top of the story, Politico says it stands behind staff writer Kyle Cheney’s reporting while conceding that the Carson campaign had not admitted to any falsehoods. Media blogger Erik Wemple of The Washington Post has a good rundown.
We still don’t know exactly what happened. My theory is that Politico’s editors took a solid story and got themselves into trouble by cranking the volume up to 11. But even though Carson is not admitting to anything (see this New York Times account of the uncharacteristically belligerent news conference over which he presided on Friday), the evidence is piling up that he is, in fact, a serial fabricator.
Particularly devastating is this Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.*) by Reid Epstein that recounts the questions raised about Carson’s autobiography in recent days. It offers some new details as well. This passage is a jaw-dropper:
In his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” Mr. Carson writes of a Yale psychology professor who told Mr. Carson, then a junior, and the other students in the class—identified by Mr. Carson as Perceptions 301 — that their final exam papers had “inadvertently burned,” requiring all 150 students to retake it. The new exam, Mr. Carson recalled in the book, was much tougher. All the students but Mr. Carson walked out.
“The professor came toward me. With her was a photographer for the Yale Daily News who paused and snapped my picture,” Mr. Carson wrote. “ ‘A hoax,’ the teacher said. ‘We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class.’ ” Mr. Carson wrote that the professor handed him a $10 bill.
No photo identifying Mr. Carson as a student ever ran, according to the Yale Daily News archives, and no stories from that era mention a class called Perceptions 301. Yale Librarian Claryn Spies said Friday there was no psychology course by that name or class number during any of Mr. Carson’s years at Yale.
When the dust settles, I suspect that Politico’s tactical retreat is not going to look like a very big deal. We are left with a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination who appears to have concocted multiple elements of his life story and who has made bizarre or offensive (or both) statements about Muslims and the presidency, Jewish victims of the Holocaust and (yes) the pyramids.
The next Republican debate is Tuesday night. It will be interesting to see if Carson is willing to show up and face the music not just from those nasty moderators but from his fellow candidates as well.
*You do know how to access Wall Street Journal articles if you’re a non-subscriber, right? Just search for a phrase from the article in Google, click and you’ve got the whole thing. It’s OK — Rupert knows about it.
By any reasonable standard of what constitutes acceptable public discourse, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign should have ended on Wednesday at about 10:50 p.m.
That’s when he set his extravagantly sprayed hair on fire by indulging in some truly dangerous myths about vaccines. It was, by any measure, a deeply irresponsible exercise. I’d call it pandering, except that it’s possible he believes his own foolishness.
It began when CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper invited candidate Ben Carson, a physician, to lambaste Trump for repeating the false claims of the anti-vaxxer movement linking vaccines to autism. Carson responded mildly — too mildly. And that gave Trump an opportunity to pounce.
“I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump began. A few seconds later came this: “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
Sadly, neither Carson nor the other physician-candidate, Rand Paul, wanted to rile the conspiracy theorists they’re hoping to win over. So both men oh-so-respectfully disagreed with Trump while actually endorsing his statement that parents ought to be able to spread out the timetable for their children to get vaccinated.
“It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time,” Carson said. Added Paul, who’s traveled down this road before: “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”
Vaccines are very precisely manufactured to include only what is absolutely necessary to induce enough of an immune response that the body can protect itself against those diseases. So a smaller dose wouldn’t protect a child. It would stick a child with a needle for no reason at all. And spreading out vaccines? That just increases the risks to the children, including leaving them more susceptible to the diseases for a longer period of time.
So what was CNN’s responsibility in promoting Trump’s life-threatening views? Some, such as Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, took to Twitter to argue that Tapper shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.
Not good – bringing vaccines into the GOP debate is a terrible idea that risks making the issue partisan http://t.co/4PVXde7ZC5
I disagree. If, God help us, Trump actually got elected president, he’s going to be besieged by anti-vaxxers demanding that he translate his rhetoric into policy. Then, too, Michele Bachmann in 2011 and Chris Christie earlier this year did enormous damage to themselves by embracing the anti-vaccine movement. Why should it be any different this time?
Still, Wednesday night felt like a botched opportunity to educate viewers about the importance of vaccines.
Media reaction to Wednesday night’s anti-vaxxer moment was slow out of the gate, but by later Thursday and on Friday it had picked up. A particularly intriguing tidbit comes from Stat, a life-sciences vertical that’s part of The Boston Globe. According to reporters Eric Boodman and Ike Swetlitz, Trump is both a donor to and supporter of Autism Speaks, which emphatically rejects the anti-vaxxer myth.
In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the most addled take was offered by The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes (God love him), who wrote that Trump “surprised everyone, including Dr. Ben Carson, by being well-informed on the use of vaccines. As usual, he was a powerful presence.” You can’t make this stuff up.
The New York Times Tuesday morning had little except for a line in Gail Collins’ column and an item by Margot Sanger-Katz in its liveblog; later in the day it posted a strong article by Sabrina Tavernise and Catherine Saint Louis. The Washington Post published a long post by Michael E. Miller headlined “The GOP’s dangerous ‘debate’ on vaccines and autism.” Here’s how Miller described Carson blowing the big moment Tapper handed to him:
For months, Carson has touted his medical expertise while on the campaign trail. And in the weeks since the first debate, the famed surgeon has risen in the polls as a milder-mannered, more rational alternative to Trump.
Now was his chance for a home run; a big hit as swift and incisive as any surgical operation.
Instead, Carson bunted.
In Politico, Ben Schreckinger speculated that Trump’s “weak command” of the issues — including vaccines — may be the prelude to his long-anticipated decline. “The conversation has moved beyond Donald Trump,” he wrote. Added Jamelle Bouie of Slate: “The good news is that this debate might mark the beginning of the end for Trump, who struggled to tackle substantive questions on foreign policy, his advisers, and what he’d actually do as president of the United States.”
We’ll see. Some 51 percent of respondents to a survey posted at the Drudge Report thought Trump won; Fiorina came in second with just 19 percent. It was totally unscientific, of course, but more than 680,000 people took the time to register their views.
Overall it was a dispiriting night. It was somehow appropriate that it ended with the news that right-wing hatemonger Ann Coulter was ranting on Twitter about the “f—ing Jews.” I mean, really. What else?
The vaccine issue, though, deserves to linger — and fester, and grow, until all but Trump’s most unhinged supporters understand that this man has no business being anywhere near the White House.
Politico this morning debuts its Massachusetts Playbook, compiled by Lauren Dezenski, most recently of the Dorchester Reporter. It’s a newsy round-up of the state political scene that aggregates from a variety of sources, including The Boston Globe and, of course, Politico.
Massachusetts Playbook competes directly with the Globe’s Political Happy Hour, Joshua Miller’s late-afternoon update. Miller is leaving the field to Dezenski this week, as he’s going on vacation. As David Bernstein notes, the timing is odd, though I suppose no one’s around this week except me (and you, of course).
Hard to believe the Globe is giving its Happy Hour #mapoli newsletter the week off as Politico's MA Playbook debuts.
If I may offer a flash judgment on the basis of exactly one Dezenskigram, I’d say she aims to be a little more comprehensive, as befits a morning briefing. Miller is more selective and takes a lighter tone. Massachusetts Playbook seems aimed at #mapoli types trying to catch up quickly before beginning their day, whereas Happy Hour feels more like something you read on your evening commute (which I often do).
Is there room for both? This may well be the most politically aware state in the country. So sure, why not?
More: Two lower profile but valuable #mapoli political emails I should not have omitted: The Download, from CommonWealth Magazine, and MASSterList.
My Facebook feed is filling up with posts from liberal friends informing me that Donald Trump is, among many other bad things, an ignoramus when it comes to the Constitution.
Trump allegedly stepped in it on Tuesday, telling Bill O’Reilly of Fox News that the 14th Amendment wouldn’t necessarily impede his rather horrifying proposal to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States.
Of course, it’s fun to think Trump is such a buffoon that he doesn’t realize something that’s part of the Constitution can’t be unconstitutional. All he’d need to do is spend a few minutes watching “Schoolhouse Rock!” videos on YouTube to disabuse himself of that notion.
But that’s not what Trump said. In fact, Trump made the perfectly reasonable assertion that the federal courts may be willing to revisit how they interpret the 14th Amendment. Trump told O’Reilly:
Bill, [lawyers are] saying, “It’s not going to hold up in court, it’s going to have to be tested.” I don’t think they have American citizenship, and if you speak to some very, very good lawyers, some would disagree…. But many of them agree with me — you’re going to find they do not have American citizenship. [Quotes transcribed by Inae Oh of Mother Jones, whose story is more accurate than the headline under which it appears.]
Birthright citizenship is not exactly a new issue. Jenna Johnson of The Washington Post noted earlier this week that, back in the early 1990s, none other than future Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid supported reinterpreting the 14th Amendment in order to end automatic citizenship — thus confirming a remark made on the campaign trail by Scott Walker, one of several Republican presidential candidates who have joined Trump in opposing it.
In searching the archives, I couldn’t find a specific reference to Reid. But The New York Times reported in December 1995 that House Republicans and some Democrats supported an end to birthright citizenship, with most arguing that a constitutional amendment would be needed and others claiming that legislation would suffice. Any attempt to enforce such legislation would have triggered exactly the sort of court challenge that Trump envisions.
And it’s not as though the 14th Amendment has stood immutable over time. After all, it wasn’t until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that the amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” forbade segregation in the public schools.
Birthright citizenship was recognized by the Supreme Court in 1898, three decades after enactment of the 14th Amendment. In that case, according to the 1995 Times article, the court overturned a California law that had been used to deny citizenship to children born in the United States whose parents were Chinese immigrants.
Trump’s rhetoric represents the worst kind of nativism, and he should be held to account for his words. But what he’s actually saying is bad enough. When the media exaggerate and distort, they hand him an undeserved victory.