H.L. Mencken: Semi-forgotten genius or a flawed but talented figure?

Photo (cc) 2013 by Paul Sableman

I recently attempted to fill one of the many gaps in my education by reading an anthology of work by H.L. Mencken, a Baltimore-based journalist of some renown during the first half of the 20th century (“The Vintage Mencken,” edited by Alistair Cooke). I came away disappointed.

Though I had already prepared myself for his well-advertised racism and antisemitism, I hadn’t realized that he was a misogynist as well. And, though he could certainly turn a phrase, many of his pieces do not hang together with any sort of coherence. For example, the longest — a critical essay about Theodore Dreiser — begins by mocking him, moves on to trashing him and then concludes with the observation that maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. I say this without any personal insight into Dreiser, as I don’t believe I’ve ever read him, not even his best-known novel, “Sister Carrie.” I just thought it was odd that Mencken couldn’t make up his mind.

Some of Mencken’s writing, of course, was satisfying. I particularly enjoyed this description of life as young reporter and how it had deteriorated into something approaching factory work:

Whether or not the young journalists of today live so spaciously is a question that I am not competent to answer, for my contacts with them, of late years, have been rather scanty. They undoubtedly get a great deal more money than we did in 1900, but their freedom is much less than ours was, and they somehow give me the impression, seen at a distance, of complacency rather than intrepidity. In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office, and even then he was little molested until his copy was turned in at the desk; today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire, and the reduction of his observations to prose is commonly farmed out to literary castrati who never leave the office, and hence never feel the wind of the world in their faces or see anything with their own eyes.

Some of Mencken’s best pieces are obituaries of the famous and the infamous, and he especially rises to the occasion following the death of William Jennings Bryan. “He was, in fact,” Mencken writes, “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses…. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard.”

Good stuff, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Hunter S. Thompson’s monumental sendoff of Richard Nixon, which remains in a class of its own.

I enjoyed Mencken’s putdown of Woodrow Wilson, who has only gradually come to be regarded as one of our worst presidents. (“[H]e knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing else.”) Then again, Mencken disdained Franklin Roosevelt and even expressed some misgivings about Abraham Lincoln, offset by his grotesque nostalgia for the Confederacy.

I guess the best way to understand Mencken is not as a half-forgotten genius but, rather, as a flawed but talented writer who will probably continue to fade into obscurity.

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Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

Yes, Trump officials spied on reporters. But every president abuses the press.

Photo (cc) 2018 by Adam Fagen

Previously published at GBH News.

The revelation last week that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records barely caused a stir. But as much as I’d like to think that such behavior would shock the conscience, I can understand why the story failed to resonate. It was, after all, the sort of thing that all administrations do. To invoke a pandemic cliché, it was a sign that nature is healing.

Not to sound cynical and world-weary. We should be outraged. We should be shouting from the rooftops. When the government uses its awesome legal powers to stymie journalists who are trying to do their jobs, we lose our ability to hold the powerful to account. The incident would stand as yet another example of former President Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies — except that, at least in this instance, his actions were right in line with those of his predecessors.

As Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, “it’s not ‘bothsidesism’ to call out loathsome things that both sides are actually doing.”

So what happened? Devlin Barrett of the Post reported last Friday night that the Justice Department informed current Post journalists Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller and former Post journalist Adam Entous that their phone records had been obtained, and their email logs had been unsuccessfully sought, for mid-April through July of 2017. The phone records showed whom the reporters were in contact with but did not reveal the contents of the calls.

There are a few details that make this particular exercise of executive power especially disturbing. The three reporters were delving into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the period in question. The records were sought in 2020, when the attorney general was Trump enabler William Barr. Thus the incident could be seen as part of Trump’s long-standing obsession with covering up his ties to Russian interests.

In other respects, though, it was business as usual.

I wrote a commentary in 2012 for HuffPost headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.” It’s a matter of public record that Barack Obama, during his eight-year presidency, showed a shocking lack of regard for the role of the press in a free society. Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, were obsessed with identifying government officials who had leaked sensitive or embarrassing information to the press. One reporter, James Risen of The New York Times, was threatened with jail for several years.

The Obama years were extreme but not exceptional. Previously, then-Times reporter Judith Miller actually did a stint behind bars for refusing to cooperate with an independent counsel’s investigation into possible wrongdoing by officials in George W. Bush’s administration: Someone had publicly identified a CIA operative in apparent retaliation for an op-ed (oops, guest essay) her husband had written for the Times that accused officials of ignoring evidence contradicting their claim that Iraq was trying to build nuclear weapons.

At least in that case, Bush had nothing to do with the investigation that landed Miller in jail. But Bush hardly had clean hands. After the Times reported that Bush’s National Security Agency was illegally spying on Americans, Bush denounced the paper’s work as “a shameful act,” and people around him urged that the Times be prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its revelations.

Of course, Richard Nixon’s attempts to retaliate against the press were legendary, ranging from including hostile reporters on his “enemies list” to threatening to strip The Washington Post of its television stations.

A central dilemma in all of these cases is that though the First Amendment offers robust protections for anything that the media might publish or broadcast, it is relatively silent on protections for reporting. In Branzburg v. Hayes, the 1972 decision that reporters do not have a constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources, Justice Byron White wrote that “news gathering is not without its First Amendment protections.” As a general rule, though, reporters have no more protections in going about their jobs than do ordinary members of the public.

Will the situation improve under President Biden? Not likely. As the CJR’s Allsop pointed out, the Biden Justice Department didn’t just inform the three Post journalists that they had been spied upon — it went out of its way to endorse the practice. Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the current Justice Department, was quoted in the Post’s account as saying that the department “follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

Raimondi added — shades of Obama and Holder — that “the targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

With public approval for the media near record lows, and with the courts unlikely to carve out any new protections for journalism, it’s not realistic to think that things are going to change for the better any time soon.

At the very least, though, the president could issue guidance to his Justice Department, backed up with a strong public statement, that the government will not spy on, subpoena or prosecute journalists except under the most dire life-and-death circumstances.

Biden appears to be intent on breaking with his predecessors in many ways, especially regarding the size and scope of government. Respecting the role of the press would be one way that he could ensure greater scrutiny of that government on behalf of all of us.

Revered, yet today largely unheard: The life and career of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington performs for patients Nov. 3, 1954, at the KFG Radio Studio for Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado. (U.S. Army photo)

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker are often described as the three founding giants of jazz. Parker’s music comes across as modern and accessible to those of us listening today, though too modern and inaccessible when he arrived in the 1940s. Armstrong seems like an artifact from the distant past. That leaves Ellington, generally regarded as one of the great geniuses of 20th-century music but not often heard anymore unless you seek him out.

I had long wanted to know more about Ellington and his music, so I recently listened to the audio version of Terry Teachout’s 2013 biography, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.” I learned a lot. But I wish, instead, that I could have listened to a series of lectures with examples from Ellington’s music. A nearly 18-hour biography of a musician with no music felt like a lost opportunity. I also would have liked a more generous telling of the Duke’s life.

One aspect that especially impressed me was that — unlike Armstrong (the subject of an earlier Teachout biography) — Ellington was largely able to elude the racist stereotypes of the day. From the earliest years of his career, Ellington was presented as an artist who came about as close to transcending race as was possible at the time. (And no, it’s still not possible today.)

Part of it was because of his manager, Irving Mills, who deserves a great deal of credit even if he and Ellington eventually had a falling-out. (Among other things, Ellington discovered Mills had lied to him about how much he’d spent on a coffin for Ellington’s mother.) Part of it was because Ellington came from a middle-class Washington family with bourgeois aspirations; Ellington was ever-conscious of acting as a Black role model. And part of it, Teachout acknowledges, is that Ellington was light-skinned.

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My problems with Teachout are three-fold. First, he dwells at excessive length on Ellington’s voracious sexual appetites. Second, he dwells at even more excessive length on Ellington’s habit of lifting what he’d heard from other musicians without giving credit. Music, and jazz in particular, is a collaborative art, and it seems to me that the point could be made without driving it home over and over. It has to be said, though, that Ellington went too far at times, so much so that he broke the heart of his closest collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.

Third, Teachout’s analysis of Ellington’s music strikes me as oftentimes pedantic and obscure. Teachout believes that Ellington’s genius was in making three-minute records, and that his longer pieces fell short because he had never studied the European classical composers to learn how it’s done. But is that really a fair criticism? Ellington was a Black composer working in an African American idiom. Maybe his longer pieces came out just the way he wanted them to.

Even so, I learned a lot. Right now I’m listening to “Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band,” recorded between 1940 and ’42 and regarded as the height of Ellington’s career. And Teachout includes a lot of fascinating details, including Ellington’s receiving the Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon at a White House reception at which Nixon sat at the piano and played “Happy Birthday” for the Duke.

In a New York Times review, James Gavin called “Duke” a “cleareyed reassessment of a man regarded in godlike terms.” Despite its flaws, I found it to be a valuable guide to a the life and work of a genius who, today, is known mainly for being well-known. It’s time to listen to Ellington anew.

How an intrepid Greek exile, the CIA and The Boston Globe nearly kept Richard Nixon out of the White House

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Elias Demetracopoulos was a fascinating character — World War II resistance fighter, journalist, opponent of the military junta in Greece and, ultimately, a political exile in the United States. Today, though, he is all but forgotten.

In a new biography, James H. Barron seeks to rectify that. “The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate” (Melville House) portrays a larger-than-life figure who could have altered the course of American history if his warnings about illegal Greek financial contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign had been made public. As Barron reveals, The Boston Globe came tantalizingly close to breaking that story — but it went untold until years later.

Given what we already know about Nixon’s attempts to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks during the 1968 campaign, the new details about secret Greek money described by Barron can only add to Nixon’s reputation as a corrupt, cynical politician willing to wade illegally into international affairs if he thought it would benefit him. Watching President Donald Trump clumsily bulldoze his way over the path blazed by Nixon calls to mind Marx’s observation that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Barron is a lawyer and journalist based in the Boston area whose career stops included The Boston Phoenix, and who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, The New Republic and The European. He was the first book review editor for Campaigns & Elections. Barron is also a founding advisory board member of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, now the WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. His wife, Marjorie Arons-Barron, is the retired editorial-page editor at WCVB-TV (Channel 5) and a well-known local blogger.

The following email interview has been lightly edited.

Q: What were the circumstances that led you to tell Demetracopoulos’ story?

A: Serendipity. I was rushed to the ER by ambulance in 2007. Before they figured out my problem, I tried to quell my fears by imagining an idyllic morning on the island of Mykonos 40 years before. Afterward, I thought about why, at that perilous moment, my mind went to Greece in 1966.

I briefly considered writing a novel set there, but I’m not a fiction writer. I was fascinated by the Bostonian Greek tycoon Tom Pappas’ role in the 1968 election and started to write about him. In 2009, I told the legendary investigative reporter Sy Hersh about my project. He advised me to focus instead on Elias Demetracopoulos, the person who tried to blow the whistle on Pappas.

After meeting Elias in Washington, I realized this episode was a small part of a remarkable life, beginning with his days as a 12-year-old involved in the Greek resistance. He was captured, tortured, imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Nazis. Later, as an aggressive, fiercely independent journalist, he fled Greece when a military junta seized power in 1967, escaping to the U.S. over State Department objections.

Q: You write that Demetracopoulos went to Democratic Party operative Larry O’Brien in 1968 with information that Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign had received a secret $549,000 payoff from the Greek junta. You also speculate that O’Brien didn’t inform President Lyndon Johnson, even though it could have led to Nixon’s defeat at the hands of Hubert Humphrey. Why do you think O’Brien sat on it?

A: I explore different theories. O’Brien trusted the message, but not the messenger. Before fleeing to the U.S. in 1967, Elias had been a scoop-hungry reporter whose exposés had so angered American officials that the CIA and State Department tried to destroy his reputation and effectiveness, often placing false information in his intelligence files. JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger passed lies and unjustified speculation to O’Brien and others that, beneath his charming exterior, Elias was a communist who secretly worked for “the other side,” and should not be trusted.

Joe Napolitan, Humphrey’s media adviser, begged to use the Pappas illegal foreign money revelation in ads. O’Brien said no. David Broder of The Washington Post told me that, given how close that election was, Elias’ disclosure would have been a “bombshell” that could have changed the outcome. Imagine history with no President Nixon and no Watergate.

Q: There’s a great Boston Globe angle in your story. You write that Washington bureau chief Bob Healy took Demetracopoulos’ tip to editor Tom Winship, who in turn assigned the story to Christopher Lydon. Lydon ended up writing a profile of Tom Pappas, who was part of Nixon’s campaign as well as a bagman for the junta, but he was unable to prove there had been a payoff. Did the Globe ever try to revisit that story?

A: Healy’s tip came informally from CIA agents, not Elias, indicating that American intelligence at some level knew about the Greek junta plot to bribe the Nixon-Agnew campaign. O’Brien told Elias that, because the matter was so delicate, if he wanted O’Brien to go to LBJ to expose the scandal, Elias must not talk to the press. And he didn’t.

Lydon wrote about the Greek money rumor in the Globe but said the charge was “unsubstantiable.” Lydon interviewed Pappas, who denied the charges, and O’Brien’s press secretary, who said nothing to Lydon about Elias — despite Elias’ detailed revelations to O’Brien, his offers to provide corroborating witnesses in Athens, and even to fly some witnesses to the U.S. More problematic were non-Globe reporters like Gloria Steinem, who summarily dismissed the Greek money rumors as an illegality the frontrunning “New Nixon” would not stoop to commit.

The Globe never revisited the story. Elias moved on, considering his efforts to blow the whistle on Pappas a distraction from his principal fight to restore Greek democracy. Lydon later joined The New York Times, where he met Elias and found him to be a credible source.

Q: The title of your book refers to “the untold story of Watergate.” As you explain, the gang of Nixon operatives who broke into O’Brien’s office at the Watergate complex may very well have been looking for O’Brien’s notes on what Demetracopoulos had told him four years earlier. That would place Nixon’s relationship with the Greek junta at the center of both his 1968 and 1972 campaigns. How does that change our understanding of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency?

A: Greece was peripheral to Nixon’s foreign policy interests, save for his preferring a staunch anti-communist dictatorship to a messy democratic government, human rights be damned, and as a source for illegal campaign funds to be milked by his tycoon fundraiser Tom Pappas.

Watergate is a metaphor for abuse of power during the Nixon years. The scandal didn’t begin with the planning for the June 1972 break-in. Its roots are in the illegal financing of the 1968 election, the potential disclosure of which caused, in the words of the historian Stanley Kutler, the “most anxiety” in the Nixon administration “for the longest period of time.”

Elias’ 1971 congressional testimony against Pappas pushed Nixon’s henchmen into overdrive and led to schemes to have Elias deported, not to mention looking away when the Greek junta plotted to have Elias kidnapped and killed. The sole opportunity to expose the reasons behind the Watergate break-in before the election was stopped because of untruthful attacks on Elias’ reputation.

There is strong circumstantial evidence that at least part of what the burglars were directed to find was whatever derogatory information the Democrats had on Nixon, especially financial documents related to foreign contributions.

Q: Demetracopoulos was a well-known, well-connected figure for many years, yet today he is all but forgotten. What do you think is the single most important lesson of his life and career?

A: Fame is fleeting. Two of the most influential columnists of that time, Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop are also largely forgotten today.

The central takeaway from Elias Demetracopoulos’ life is that one intrepid individual, against great odds, can make a difference — but standing up to abusive governments often entails profound risks, great personal sacrifices, and a lifetime of relentless attacks and harsh consequences.

To be a whistleblower requires the courage to jeopardize your career and even risk your life. But doing so can influence history.

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Trump’s SOTU speech was a cynical exercise in pretend bipartisanship

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi in happier times. 2017 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Was President Trump’s bipartisan outreach in his State of the Union address Tuesday night a cynical attempt to recast himself as something he fundamentally is not? Or was it an even more cynical attempt to be seen as bipartisan while winking and nodding to his hardcore supporters? As Lily Tomlin once observed, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” I thought it was clear that Trump was pursuing the latter course. So take this as my attempt to stay ahead of the Tomlin curve.

The conventional take was expressed in The Wall Street Journal by Gerald Seib, who wrote: “When Donald Trump became president, there was reason to believe he might govern as he campaigned, almost as an independent, standing apart from both parties, perhaps even with an ability to bridge the two parties because he was beholden to neither of them. And for the first half an hour of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, that was the very tone he set in his remarks in the House chamber. He opened his arms to Democrats, declaring that Americans are ‘hoping we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.’”

But is that really what Trump did? Consider:

  • Near the beginning of his speech, the president said that “the agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda.” Referring to the Democratic Party as “the Democrat Party” is a slight that goes back decades, as then-NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepherd explained in 2010. It was a calculated way for Trump to signal to his base that he was reaching out to Democrats while actually doing the opposite.
  • Trump refused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the courtesy of introducing him, as is the longstanding custom at the State of the Union. Kate Feldman noted the snub in New York’s Daily News, although she also observed that “he and Pelosi did share a cordial handshake during the first standing ovation.”
  • Much later in his 82-minute stemwinder, Trump began ranting about the evils of socialism — “as if it had gotten particularly far along,” snarked Jim Newell in Slate. Trump’s remarks were apparently aimed at Congress’ two high-profile democratic socialists, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and they seemed to have little effect. The #NeverTrump conservative Max Boot bemusedly pointed out in The Washington Post that Trump “equated [socialism] with Venezuela rather than, say, Denmark.” But it was a sign that Trump is prepared to go full Red Scare in what will surely be a desperate attempt to win re-election.

“Trump and his advisers can see he’s in a corner,” wrote the liberal commentator Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. “He needs to try to get some footing with a less confrontational, more unifying posture that most Presidents at least optically try to govern from.”

Other than Trump’s phony bipartisanship, his customary fear-mongering about undocumented immigration and crime, and his introduction of some truly admirable guests (every one of whom exuded a decency that was entirely absent from the podium), what struck me most was an unforced error in which he directly drew a parallel between himself and Richard Nixon.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said, a direct reference to the ongoing investigations into his campaign, his businesses, and his presidency. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”

As Philip Bump pointed out in The Washington Post, Nixon said something remarkably similar in his 1974 State of the Union speech: “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” Bump’s riposte: “It wasn’t quite enough, as it turned out.”

The Democrats’ official response to Trump’s speech, delivered by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, was unusually effective as these grim rituals go. Abrams gave an upbeat, warm talk while simultaneously scorching Trump over the recent government shutdown (she said she helped serve meals to out-of-work federal employees) and talking frankly about voter suppression. Abrams lost a close race for governor last November amid accusations that a variety of Election Day problems had resulted in thousands of voters in Democratic areas being turned away.

Who was watching Tuesday night? Mainly Trump voters. According to CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta, people who viewed the speech “were roughly 17 points more likely than the general public to identify as Republicans.” And they liked what they saw, with about 60 percent giving it a thumbs-up.

Trump’s approach was pretty standard for him: Appeal to his shrinking but loyal base in the hopes that he can parlay their enthusiasm into another Electoral College victory. We are a very long way from knowing whether it will work — or even if he’ll be on the 2020 ballot given the various investigations swirling around him. It didn’t work out for Nixon. The final chapter of the Trump presidency has yet to be written.

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A malign force from Nixon to Trump: Revisiting the Roger Stone biopic

Roger Stone. Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

How sleazy is Roger Stone? After the on-again, off-again Trump operative was arrested last week and charged in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, news reports invariably brought up Stone’s boasts that he and Richard Nixon were thisclose. Once again, we were subjected to those appalling photos of the Nixon tattoo that adorns Stone’s back. And the Nixon Foundationsprung into action on Twitter:

When even an organization devoted to “the consequential legacy and relevance” of the original unindicted co-conspirator wants nothing to do with you, it may be safely assumed that you are no ordinary political dirty trickster. And surely no one would call Stone ordinary.

What we should call Stone is the man who, more than anyone else, inflicted the presidency of Donald Trump upon us. It is easy to dismiss Stone as a foppish buffoon. But in rewatching the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” this week, I was reminded of how crucial Stone was to the entire Trump political enterprise — starting in the late 1980s, when Trump visited New Hampshire at Stone’s instigation.

“The Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production,” says Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote a profile of Stone for The New Yorker and is one of the principal talking heads in the 2017 film, directed by Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro.

By Stone’s own telling, his dirty tricks extend all the way back to elementary school, where he rigged a mock election between his candidate, John F. Kennedy (Stone was not yet a Republican), and Richard Nixon.

“I went to the cafeteria, and as each kid would go through the cafeteria line with their tray, I would tell them, ‘You know, Nixon has proposed having school on Saturdays,’” Stone recalls. “Well, then the mock election was held, and to the surprise of the local newspaper, Democrat John Kennedy swept this mock election. For the first time ever, I understood the value of disinformation.” With a slight smirk he adds, “Of course, I’ve never practiced it since then.”

Stone has somehow managed to convince himself that he has political convictions that go beyond notoriety and cashing in. Yes, at one point we learn that he holds libertarian views on issues such as reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana. What really motivates him, though, are the same inchoate resentments that have helped elect the Republican presidents he’s served.

“Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principles, are losers. Those are bitter losers,” he says, sitting in a limousine in a pinstriped suit, wearing a lavender hat and his trademark round dark glasses. “Everything I have done, everything I have worked for, is to propel ideas and a political philosophy that I want to see dominate in government. Donald Trump has now elevated the issues that I believe in: anti-elitism that was first identified by Richard Nixon, mined by Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump.”

Anti-elitism as a “political philosophy.” Well, it carried Trump to the presidency, and it continues to resonate with his base. In Stone’s world, as in Trump’s, winning is its own justification.

The range of dirty tricks attributed to Stone, often exaggerated by the man himself, is breathtaking. Arranging for a campaign donation from a phony socialist group to Pete McCloskey, Nixon’s 1972 Republican primary opponent. Destroying Pat Buchanan’s 2000 presidential campaign by means too complicated to explain here (Trump played a cameo), thus helping to ensure the election of George W. Bush. Instigating the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that stopped the 2000 Florida recount. Breaking the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. Possibly even supplying CBS News with the George W. Bush National Guard documents that led to the departure of several journalists from the network, including anchor Dan Rather, after they were shown to be fake.

Toobin again: “Roger is unique in my opinion because he embraces infamy. He doesn’t worry that you’ll think he’s a sleazeball. He wants you to think he’s a sleazeball.”

Among other things, “Get Me Roger Stone” demonstrates that the Trump campaign had its origins many years ago, tying together such nefarious figures as Roy CohnPaul Manafort, Stone, and Trump himself. Trump and Manafort spoke extensively to the filmmakers, with Manafort saying, “Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald.”

It seems likely that Stone would have been regarded as more of a real player and less of a sideshow freak if he hadn’t gotten caught up in a sex scandal of his own while working for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, thus relegating him to the shadows. Indeed, in the film we see Stone in such ridiculous situations as yelling into a megaphone while wearing a Shepard Fairey-style T-shirt of Bill Clinton emblazoned with the word “Rape” and holding forth on Alex Jones’ conspiracy-mongering “Infowars” program.

Roger Stone may come across as an absurd character. But as the film makes clear, he’s also one of the most important political operatives of the past four decades. As “Get Me Roger Stone” winds down to its conclusion, his unseen interlocutor asks, “What message would you have for the viewers of this film who will loathe you when the credits roll?” Stone’s answer: “I revel in your hatred. Because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.”

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Media roundup: Sulzberger sends a message; tech and layoffs; and the return of Woodward and Bernstein

The patriarch: Adolph Ochs

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A.G. Sulzberger passed the audition.

Two Fridays ago the 37-year-old New York Times publisher met with President Trump at the White House for what he thought was an off-the-record discussion. Trump, as is his wont, later tweeted out his own dubious version of what had happened. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,’” the president wrote. “Sad!”

Which created a dilemma for Sulzberger. Should he act as though their off-the-record agreement was still in effect? Or should he push back at what he regarded as the president’s false characterization of their conversation? He chose the latter.

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said in a statement he issued this past Sunday, which the Times itself reported on. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Sulzberger’s reaction set exactly the right tone. By disclosing what he had said but not what Trump had said, he took the high road. But the Times also reported that Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet, who was also at the meeting, took “extensive notes” — a clear warning to Trump in the event that he decides to extend his Twitter war with the paper.

Sulzberger became publisher on Jan. 1. He was the latest member of Sulzberger-Ochs family to ascend to the top of the masthead, an unbroken chain that extends back to Adolph Ochs’ purchase of the Times in 1896. His father and predecessor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., presided over the paper to mixed reviews. As Ken Auletta put it in a tough New Yorker profile in 2005, “Although he occupies perhaps the most august position in the nation’s press establishment, he seems to lack the weighty seriousness of his predecessors.”

A.G., by contrast, has struck observers as both serious and wise beyond his years. “The publisher of the Times sits in direct contrast to the president of the United States: demure, private, vegetarian, self-effacing, and reliant on proving himself through hard work rather than trading on his famous surname,” according to The Washington Post.

The lead author of the Times’ celebrated 2014 innovation report, A.G. is perhaps the ideal publisher to continue the paper’s metamorphosis into a primarily digital news organization. And unlike virtually all of his predecessors, he has a significant background in journalism, having worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal, The Oregonian, and the Times itself.

The Times is far from perfect. Though its coverage of the Trump White House has been admirably tough, the paper still lapses — as I wrote last January — into episodes of normalizing this abnormal president and of succumbing too readily to the temptations of access journalism. For instance, a substance-free story about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that appeared over the weekend was widely derided, with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen writing that “it feels like a report smuggled out of the summer castle after the ladies in waiting started talking.”

But the continued health of the Times is crucial to democracy. So far, A.G. Sulzberger seems like the right person at the right time to stand up to the Trump White House as well as for journalistic values.

Squint really hard and you can almost see a silver lining

A report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center documents the horrifying drop in newsroom employment over the past 10 years, with newspapers having by far the worst of it. The number of full-time newspaper journalists fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017, a decline of 45 percent. A modest increase in the number of journalists at digital-only outlets did not come close to making up the difference.

I’m not going to try to sugarcoat what’s happening. And we should always keep in mind that greedy corporate owners like Digital First and tronc are at least as responsible for the drop as the collapse of newspaper advertising. But I do want to offer a small countervailing data point: Because of technology, reporters today are far more efficient and can produce more useful work in the same amount of time than was previously possible.

A couple of examples from my own career will suffice. When I was a community newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I had to drive to Beacon Hill for campaign-finance reports. Once I had them, my options were to take notes by hand or, if I had enough quarters, make copies, assuming the copy machine was working. (And imagine if you worked in Western Massachusetts rather than 12 miles from Boston, as I did.) Now you can just look them up. Later, as the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix, I once spent an entire afternoon searching through unindexed microfilm for a half-remembered article that I wanted to write about. Today, I would have it in a few minutes.

Again, I’m not trying to argue that the collapse of newsrooms doesn’t matter. It matters a lot, and of course there’s no substitute for having actual human beings to sit through municipal meetings and develop sources. What I am saying is that the effects of this collapse would be even worse without the digital tools that have become available over the past 20 years.

Woodward and Bernstein back on the beat

How cosmically appropriate is it that just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and related issues nears its conclusion (or not), the two legendary Washington Post reporters who did more than anyone to bring down the Nixon presidency are back on the beat?

Carl Bernstein was one of three CNN reporters whose byline appeared on a devastating report that, according to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the then-candidate knew in advance about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower at which Russians had promised to reveal “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And this week we learned that Bob Woodward is wrapping up a book called “Fear: Trump in the White House,” scheduled to be released on Sept. 11.

As I always tell my students: Everything — everything — can be traced back to Richard Nixon.

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Trump’s attacks on the ‘Fake Washington Post’ show how he’s different from Nixon

Illustration (cc) 2012 by AK Rockefeller.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little less than two years ago, as Donald Trump was moving ever closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos made a rather remarkable promise. “I have a lot of very sensitive and vulnerable body parts,” he said in a public conversation with the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron. “If need be, they can all go through the wringer rather than do the wrong thing.”

At the time, Trump was attacking the Post and Amazon, the retail behemoth that Bezos had founded, by threatening to launch an antitrust investigation and end Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks. So Bezos’ promise carried with it a very specific meaning, especially for those steeped in Watergate lore. When Post reporter Carl Bernstein asked one of Richard Nixon’s thugs, John Mitchell, to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell famously responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” And here was Bezos, all those years later, pledging to stand tall in the face of threats from the powerful — as tall as Katharine Graham had in the 1970s. It was a promise that is now being put to the test.

President Trump, of course, has attacked the “fake news” media relentlessly. Last week, he turned his attention, as he sometimes does, to the Post.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed that Bezos should be required to register the Post as a “lobbyist” for Amazon. He also referred to the paper as the “Fake Washington Post.” For those of us who are connoisseurs of such things, that’s a major improvement over his previous derogatory nickname, the “Amazon Washington Post,” though still not quite a match for the truly inspired “Failing New York Times.”

Of course, it’s easy to mock Trump. But his attacks on the Post go beyond buffoonery — they potentially represent real trouble. Imagine what would happen if the Trump administration launched an investigation into Amazon with the intent of harming the Post. The supine Republican Congress wouldn’t do anything but vaguely express concern. The Fox News-led right-wing media would bray for the Post’s demise.

And yet Trump isn’t Nixon. I don’t mean Trump isn’t as bad as Nixon; give him time, and he could prove to be worse. I mean that, stylistically, they are very different people with diametrically opposite ways of looking at the world. Nixon, for all his faults, fundamentally understood the legitimacy of the institutions he was seeking to undermine. He acted in secret, and the actions he considered taking against the Post — hitting the paper with a criminal complaint in order to undermine its public stock offering, challenging the licenses of the TV stations it held — would have hurt the Post in real, measurable ways.

By contrast, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Trump’s threats, based as they are on falsehoods so blatant that they can only be called lies. Amazon is not costing the post office money; it’s actually a boon. The Post is not a lobbyist for Amazon; Bezos has allowed the paper to operate independently, keeping his distance from both the news operation and the editorial pages. Trump is right about Amazon’s harming brick-and-mortar retailers, but it has paid state and local taxes just like any other company for some years now.

Also in contrast to Nixon’s skullduggery, Trump voices his threats in public. And that’s the key to what is really going on. Trump understands that in the current media environment, he doesn’t have to harm the business prospects of his enemies in the press (although Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair, reports that he might try to go after the Post). He merely has to delegitimize them in the eyes of the 35 to 40 percent of the public that continues to support him. The Post, the Times, and other news organizations are benefiting from the “Trump effect,” as anti-Trump audiences are rewarding them not just with clicks but with paid subscriptions. Trump doesn’t care as long as he is able to convince his followers that he and his sycophants at Fox News and Breibart are the source of all the reality that they need.

In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, at a time when it looked like Trump was going to lose, Bezos spoke out against Trump for suggesting he wouldn’t respect the results of the election unless he won. “One of the things that makes this country so amazing is that we are allowed to criticize and scrutinize our elected leaders,” Bezos said. “There are other countries where if you criticize the elected leader you might go to jail. Or worse, you may just disappear.”

In fact, Trump is making his enemies in the media disappear — not to all of us, and certainly not to the majority who are appalled by his presidency. But he is making the mainstream media disappear to his followers and replacing them with himself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. The Fake Washington Post and the Failing New York Times aren’t going anywhere. For the Trump minority, though, they have ceased to exist.

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In ‘The Post,’ Spielberg offers a hopeful message for our Trumpian times

Spielberg’s Nixon is the proto-Trump. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.

Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.

The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”

Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.

The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.

Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:

That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.

“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.

Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:

In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.

One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.

In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.

But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.

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