Jennifer Rubin gets burned with her not-off-the-record email to Politico

Jennifer Rubin

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin ignored one of the most basic rules of going off the record this week — and got burned as a result.

Politico’s West Wing Playbook on Thursday ran a longish item on Rubin’s favorable coverage of the Biden White House, including her adopting some of the same complaints about media coverage used by administration officials.

“One Post employee said some people in the newsroom are increasingly frustrated that Rubin is parroting the administration’s critiques of the media, which they believe emboldens the administration to push back on journalists even further,” write Politico’s Alex Thompson and Nick Niedzwiadek. “Two others say they just try to ignore her or don’t read her columns.”

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Thompson and Niedzwiadek write that they contacted Rubin for comment, and she responded with an email whose subject line was “OFF THE RECORD.” They proceeded to publish her response in full:

How utterly predictable that Politico would run the zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman, especially one candid in her critiques of Politico’s hysterical, clickbait style of coverage. The notion that I am polarizing in a newsroom (as opposed to any of the dozens of other opinion writers) is a “take” only Politico could come up with — by of course running around to ask the question in the first place. I trust the Post’s superb news side folks spend zero time thinking about me (as is entirely appropriate). My only surprise is that Sam [Stein, POLITICO’s White House editor], a very good journalist, would become enmeshed in such an obviously misogynistic publication. Surely there are finer publications that would have him.

And btw, what a low class move to do this on Yom Kippur at the last moment.

So what’s going on here? Both parties have to agree in order for something to be off the record. Thompson and Niedzwiadek write that they had no such agreement with Rubin — she simply sent her email assuming they would respect her wishes. They didn’t, nor should they. Journalists sometimes going along with such requests, especially if they come from a source with whom they have a longstanding relationship. But it should never be taken for granted. Rubin knows that, of course, and I wonder if she wrote her response half-expecting that Politico would use it.

In case you’re not familiar with her, Rubin has morphed over the years from a staunch conservative to a Never Trump conservative and now into a moderate liberal.

Finally, the Politico item is very Politico, snarky and assuming without evidence that Rubin is somehow acting in bad faith by writing favorably about President Biden and agreeing with the White House’s often-valid gripes about the media. Without her not-off-the-record quote, it wouldn’t be worth a read.

What’s wrong with Politico

In one sentence: Politico provides insider gossip at a time when democracy faces an existential threat. Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. explains:

The Politico approach is probably fine if you are covering parties and politicians who share some values and norms. And the election of Barack Obama looked like it could usher in a politics that was less divisive than George W. Bush’s presidency and a full break from the conflicts over race and identity that had in many ways defined U.S. politics since the 1960s.

But early in the Obama years, it became clear that the fights of the past weren’t over; they were, instead, perhaps becoming even more tense.

The sale of Politico marks the end of a long duel between the Allbrittons and the Grahams

Katharine Graham believed that Joseph Allbritton hoped to take advantage of the 1975-’76 strike against The Washington Post. Photo by Reading/Simpson, noncommercial use permitted.

Robert Allbritton last week sold Politico to the German media company Axel Springer for $1 billion. Ben Smith, who was part of the launch back in 2007, wrote about the sale earlier this week in The New York Times. I wrote about the two-generation rivalry between the Allbrittons and the Graham family, who controlled The Washington Post until 2013, in “The Return of the Moguls.” Below is an excerpt.

Katharine Graham’s other crucial move was to endure a strike in 1975 in order to get the Post’s printing costs under control. So arcane were the work rules that when an advertiser submitted a finished ad (known in the post-hot-lead, pre-computer age as “camera-ready”), a union compositor still put together an equivalent ad, even though it would be discarded as soon as he was finished with it. In deciding to put a stop to such practices, Graham was fortunate in the viciousness of her opposition. At one demonstration, a leader of the union, Charlie Davis, carried a sign that read “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham,” a reference to Phil Graham’s suicide. On the night that the pressmen went on strike, some of them beat the night foreman and started a fire in an attempt to sabotage the machinery. Because of those actions they earned the enmity of the Newspaper Guild, which represented the reporters. With the paper’s journalists crossing the picket line, the Post was able to resume publishing after just one missed day, enabling them to break the strike. The benefits of being able to modernize production were immediate, as income grew from about $13 million a year to $24.5 million in 1976 and to $35.5 million in 1977.

Not all observers were sympathetic to the Grahams. Ben Bagdikian, a former Post national editor who spent much of his long, distinguished career after leaving the paper as an academic and a harsh critic of corporate journalism, wrote an article in the Washington Monthly attributing the strike to Katharine Graham’s earlier decision to go public. “The idiosyncratic publishers, whose integrity led them to ignore narrow economic arguments in favor of quality, and who as a result created America’s great newspapers, are disappearing,” Bagdikian wrote. “They were being replaced by profit-maximizing conglomerate owners. It is a forecast of trouble for independent journalism in the country’s most important news companies.” Graham recorded her response in a note to Ben Bradlee: “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”

The Post’s rivalry with The Washington Star played a small role in the strike as well, a tidbit of interest mainly because of who owned the Star at that time: Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had acquired the paper from the Kauffmann family in 1974. Katharine Graham wrote that Allbritton declined to help the Post during the strike because, in her view, the only way the Star could stay in business was for the Post to fail. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, which closed it in 1981 even though Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Warren Buffett had made overtures to set up a joint operating agreement under which both papers would be published.

The Allbritton family’s ambitions remained entangled with the Post for many decades to come. Years later, two Post journalists, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rebuffed when they proposed setting up a separate political website under the paper’s umbrella. They took their idea to Joe Allbritton’s son, Robert, who helped them launch Politico in 2007. With its hyperkinetic insider’s approach to covering politics, the site quickly established itself as a serious rival to the Post on one of its signature beats, although Politico was often criticized for emphasizing the superficial horse race aspects of politics.

Robert Allbritton also backed a site cheekily named TBD.com (for “to be determined”), edited by the former washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady and the future Post media blogger Erik Wemple, which covered local news in the Washington area in conjunction with a television station the Allbrittons had owned since acquiring the Star. Fortunately for the Grahams, Allbritton lost patience with it within months of its 2010 launch, and in 2012 the site was shut down. Another Allbritton connection: About a year after Jeff Bezos bought the Post, he hired Frederick Ryan, a former Reagan administration official, to replace Katharine Weymouth as publisher. At the time that the move was made, Ryan was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and had served as Politico’s first chief executive.

The Post and Politico make for a fascinating contrast. Both companies are ensconced in brand-new headquarters on either side of the Potomac; Politico occupies part of an office tower in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. The missions of the two organizations are very different. The Post is a general-interest newspaper with a substantial print presence. Politico is aimed at people in the professional political community, and though it publishes a small print product (daily when Congress is in session; weekly otherwise), it’s mainly digital. Yet if the ancient rivalry between the Post and The New York Times is mostly journalistic and symbolic, the Post’s rivalry with the Allbritton family has involved serious competition over whose news organization will prove to be more financially successful in the long run.

Correction: I have learned that the elder Albritton’s legal name was Joe, not Joseph. Unfortunately, it remains wrong in the book.

Axios perpetuates #bothsides journalism in the midst of insanity

Marjorie Taylor Greene. Photo (cc) 2020 by FYNTV FetchYourNews.

Many mainstream news organizations are genuinely struggling to come to terms with the current dynamic in Washington: an often feckless Democratic Party opposed by crazy and dangerous Republicans. It’s not an entirely new scenario, and has in fact been building since Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s. But it’s become acute since the Trump-inspired insurrection of Jan. 6 and the embrace of QAnon and sedition by large swaths of the GOP.

But while responsible journalists are trying to figure out how to navigate this reality, there’s another group that continues to embrace #bothsides-ism at its most mindless. At the center of this is Axios, which combines the politics-as-sports sensibility of Politico, whence it sprang, with bullet points and lots of boldface.

Take, for instance, “The Mischief Makers.” According to Axios reporters Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba, leaders in each of the two major parties are being tormented by “troublemakers” and “political thorns” within their ranks. And who are these feisty backbenchers?

Well, on the Republican side is House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called for the execution of  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and who believes that wildfires are caused by a Jewish-controlled laser in outer space. Also getting a nod are Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and Mo Brooks, all of whom supported the insurrection.

What Democrats could possibly be as dastardly as that? Why, the Squad, of course! Because they’re liberal and/or progressive. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley all get a shoutout, as well as like-minded newcomers such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush.

In the Senate, Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, all of whom supported Trump’s coup attempt, are equated with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who are more conservative than most of their party peers, and independent Bernie Sanders, who’s to the left of most of his colleagues but who’s been notably supportive of President Joe Biden.

But wait! There’s to-be-sure paragraph buried amid all this:

Not all are created equal. Democrats often contend with an outspoken, very progressive wing of their caucus and try to keep centrists from crossing party lines. Republicans have senators who led efforts to invalidate the 2020 election results and flirted with the same conspiracy theories that fueled groups involved in the Capitol siege.

No kidding.

So, does anything Axios publishes cause genuine harm? It’s hard to say. But Axios is aimed primarily at insiders — congressional staff members, lobbyists and other journalists. And many of them would love nothing more than validation that they can return to business as usual.

Cynical takes such as this can serve to normalize what’s going on in Washington, providing the narcotic drip we need to help us forget that many powerful Republicans attempted to overthrow the results of the election less than a month ago. Five people died, and we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of what happened.

Follow the money

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 who say 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.

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Fact-checking in the Age of Trump: Why false equivalence is harming democracy

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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 made more 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 as false 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.

In a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson found that press coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign was actually more negative than that of Trump. In other words, her emails were treated the same as or worse than her opponent’s racist outbursts, the “Access Hollywood” tapecorruption at the Trump Foundation and so much more.

“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.

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No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

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.

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Stat marks first anniversary by unveiling paid ‘Plus’ service

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Also published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

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Trump throws the Washington Post off the bus

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) interviews Post owner Jeff Bezos at a recent event.
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) interviews Post owner Jeff Bezos at a recent event.

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.

Two tales from the heart of Trump University

9596679453_4f88697d69_oI 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.

Illustration (cc) by Mike Licht.