By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Biden’s big write-in win shows why Dems should drop their bid to erase the NH primary

Photo (cc) 2014 by Billy Hathorn

I think the biggest story coming out of the New Hampshire primary is that President Biden absolutely kicked butt while running as a write-in. That’s not easy to do, and if Dean “Who?” Phillips had turned in a showing that was even mildly respectable, it’s all the media would be talking about. Since New Hampshire is obviously not going to give up its first-in-the-nation primary, the Democrats might want to rethink their attempts to make it go away.

Beyond that, what can anyone say? It looks like Donald Trump beat Nikki Haley by about 11 points in what just about every political observer believes will be her best state. It’s only going to get worse from here. No one would be surprised if she endorses Trump at Mar-a-Lago by Friday, assuming that can be scheduled around his multiple court appearances.

For many years I had a gig as a weekly columnist for The Guardian and, later, for GBH News. My practice on mornings like this was to round-up morning-after commentary and try to make sense out of it. I am so glad I don’t have to do that this time beyond a few brief observations here. I’ll confess that I didn’t even pay attention to the Iowa caucuses, and only watched a bit of cable news Tuesday night. I should add that I asked my graduate students to come in this afternoon with an example of a story from New Hampshire that they think is illuminating in some way, which I guess makes me a sadist.

One pre-New Hampshire story I want to call your attention to is this article in The New York Times by Michael C. Bender and Nicholas Nehamas. It’s labeled “Political Memo,” which is supposed to signal the reader that the piece combines reporting, analysis and opinion. The headline itself is remarkable (“The Emasculation of Ron DeSantis by the Bully Donald Trump”), but the lead is even more noteworthy:

Donald J. Trump plumbed new depths of degradation in his savage takedown of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a yearlong campaign of emasculation and humiliation that helped force one of the party’s rising stars out of the presidential race after just one contest and left him to pick up the pieces of his political future.

Wow. I often have problems with the way the Times both-sides its day-to-day political coverage, but this is some vivid writing in the service of truth-telling. Here’s a free link, so please read the whole thing. As Josh Marshall wrote at Talking Points Memo, “it suggested to me at least some shift in dropping the pretense of conventional news coverage for conventional politics and approaching the quite unconventional story of what is really on its own visceral and physical terms.”

It also represented a break from the “two flawed candidates” narrative that we’re going to hear over and over (and over) for the next 10 months — as if the contest between Biden and Trump didn’t offer the starkest choice since 1860.

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A Muzzle for the officers who removed a teenage journalist from a GOP event

Quinn Mitchell, right, with Chris Christie and his wife, Mary Pat Christie. Photo (cc) 2023 by NHpolitico.

It’s hardly a surprise that Republican officials in New Hampshire would throw a 15-year-old out of a political event for doing nothing other than shooting video. But there is no excuse for police officers going along with their outrageous demand.

According to Samantha J. Gross of The Boston Globe, Quinn Mitchell, an aspiring journalist who’s become something of a celebrity for asking tough questions of presidential candidates, was escorted out of a political event at the behest of party officials in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Friday — apparently because someone didn’t like his recording videos of a longshot presidential candidate.

🗽The New England Muzzle Awards🗽

“They told me I was being a disruption,” Mitchell was quoted as saying. “I was taking a video like anybody else.” He added that five officers were involved in removing him from the Sheraton Nashua hotel.

Quinn said that a party official told him he was being kicked out because he had a reputation for disrupting events. No doubt that official was referring to Mitchell’s journalism, which can indeed be disruptive because he does it the right way. Earlier this summer Quinn asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “Do you believe that Trump violated the peaceful transfer of power, a key principle of American democracy that we must uphold?” He also asked former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a born-again Never Trumper, whether Hillary Clinton would have been a better choice than Donald Trump in 2016.

Although Mitchell was reportedly back in the hall Friday an hour after his removal, the incident led to a story in The New York Times. It also leads to an important question: Should police officers who work for the public go along with a demand to remove a teenager — or anyone — from an event simply because he was exercising his First Amendment rights? The answer, quite obviously, is no, and it really doesn’t matter whether the officers were on the taxpayers’ dime or if they were being paid as part of a private detail. (The Times reported that it tried and failed to get a comment from the Nashua police department.)

For that, police officers who removed Mitchell from the hotel have earned a New England Muzzle Award.

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Public notices are a crucial source of revenue — and of government accountability

Mathewson Farm in Johnston, R.I. Photo (cc) by John Phelan.

When we think about revenue sources for local news, we tend to focus on the obvious — ads, subscriptions, events and, for nonprofits, voluntary memberships and grants. What we often overlook are public notices, also known as legal ads, taken out by government entities to inform the public that a job is being put out to bid or a meeting is being held. Mandatory public notices also include foreclosures, the disposition of public property and other business.

Public notices represent a significant source of revenue for community news organizations — and they can be weaponized. The Boston Globe recently reported on one such example in Rhode Island. Amanda Milkovits wrote that the city of Johnston has removed public notices from the weekly Johnston Sun Rise and moved them instead to the daily Providence Journal, even though the Journal charges much higher fees and is read by few people in Johnston.

The mayor, Joseph Polisena Jr., told Milkovits that he wanted public notices to reach a broader audience, especially to let construction companies know about bids. But the city has also been at odds with the Sun Rise and its editor/reporter, Rory Schuler. Publisher John Howell was quoted as saying that Polisena once told him, “I’m not going to support somebody who is working against me,” and that the mayor said he wouldn’t advertise as long as Schuler was with the paper. (Polisena denied the charges.)

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The loss of city public notices is costing the Sun Rise some $12,000 a year. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told the Globe that the city might be violating the First Amendment if  it could be shown that Polisena’s actions were retaliation for negative coverage.

What’s happening in Rhode Island is hardly unusual. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed a bill through the legislature that allows local governments simply to post public notices on their own websites — a cost-saving measure that also has the effect of making legal ads less visible. DeSantis’ disdain for the news media is well-known.

Colorado College journalism professor Corey Hutchins often tracks fights over public notices in his newsletter, Inside the News in Colorado. Recently he reported on a move by city officials in Aspen to designate the Aspen Daily News, which is locally owned, as the city’s “newspaper of record” over The Aspen Times, a daily owned by the Ogden chain, based in Wheeling, West Virginia. That peculiarity of Colorado law carries with it some major implications. Hutchins writes:

Newspapers that earn a city’s “of record” stamp means they are the ones a city pays to place legal notices and advertising. State law requires governments to publish certain things in local newspapers in order to keep residents abreast of public business. Being a city’s paper of record also can give a newspaper a sense of gravitas in a community.

In other words, more money for the Daily News, less for the Times, which became embroiled earlier this year in a dispute with county officials who were unhappy with the Times’ coverage of a billionaire’s development plans. (Hutchins does not claim there is a link between the county and city actions.)

According to Susan Chandler, writing for the Local News Initiative, such battles are under way across the country, with increasing pressure to move public notices from news outlets to government websites. Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, told Chandler that these initiatives are part of Republican attacks on journalism, saying:

I don’t think the concept of legal notices is controversial. There needs to be a nonpartisan way to officially announce what the government is doing. What’s controversial is how it happens. We’ve seen it become more of a partisan issue in the last five or 10 years. In some states, there are Republicans who are in battle with the media as part of their political strategy. To that extent, it has become partisan.

In Massachusetts, change may be afoot as well. Currently, state law requires that public notices be placed in print newspapers, which has become increasingly difficult as the Gannett chain has closed and merged many of its weekly papers. A number of communities are being well served by nonprofit startups, but those tend to be digital-only. State legislators are considering ways to amend the law to allow public notices to be placed in web publications, especially in communities where there is no viable print paper.

I’ve consulted with state Rep. Ken Gordon, whose district includes Bedford, the home of a vibrant digital publication, The Bedford Citizen, but no print newspaper since Gannett closed the Bedford Minuteman about a year and a half ago. The town now publishes its public notices in The Sun of Lowell, which has virtually no presence in Bedford. Also of note: On the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Ed Miller, editor of the startup Provincetown Independent, a print and digital publication. Miller argues that the print requirement for public notices is essential, at least in places that still have a print newspaper.

Public notices aren’t sexy. It’s much more satisfying to talk about a local news outlet that has built a successful events business or has found a way to boost digital subscriptions. But they are essential. Not only do they provide as much as 20% to 25% of a small local newspaper’s revenues, but they an important part of accountability. Public notices on a government website can be hidden away or even changed. Since Colonial times, public notices have helped local journalism thrive and have kept citizens informed. The laws governing public notices need to be updated — but not overturned.

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Candidates gang up on Ramaswamy because they just can’t stand his smug arrogance

Vivek Ramaswamy. Photo (cc) 2022 by Gage Skidmore.

Entertainment was hard to come by at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate. But to the extent that there was anything to savor, it came in the form of the attacks on Vivek Ramaswamy at the hands of Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie. What they needed to accomplish was to bury what was left of Ron DeSantis. Instead, they were so enraged by Ramaswamy that they focused their fire on him.

Ramaswamy was glib, smug, rude and arrogant. He also mouthed far-right talking points in a way that would do Donald Trump proud, coming out foursquare for everything bad, from coal to Russia. Although all eight candidates tried to duck a question about climate change (Haley was a wishy-washy exception), only Ramaswamy declared it to be a “hoax.” He alone would cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine, though DeSantis was heading in that direction.

Did Ramaswamy help or hurt himself? Who knows? I thought New York Times columnist David French put it well: “Everything I dislike about him, MAGA loves, and he looked more like Trump’s heir than DeSantis did.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo called Ramaswamy a “cocky little shit,” which wasn’t quite accurate: he’s actually pretty tall.

In case Ramaswamy is new to you, you might want to check out this profile in The New Yorker, written by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Ramaswamy, who made his fortune in biotech, has moved to the extreme right in recent years, something that hasn’t exactly endeared him to those who were once close to him. Kolhatkar writes:

I asked Ramaswamy if his burgeoning reputation as a conservative firebrand had taken a personal toll. He chose his words carefully. A family member no longer spoke to him, and he’d been ghosted by a close friend. Although he’d forged new relationships with conservatives, none of the connections had turned into friendships. “I feel like the public advocacy, or whatever you call what I’ve been doing in the last couple of years, has eroded more friendships than new friendships made up for it,” he said.

Being shunned because of your principles is one thing. Being shunned because of ambition is something else.

So who won? I thought the big winner was President Biden. Trump, too, I imagine, since he continues to dominate the Republican field and did not take part in Wednesday’s free-for-all. Other than that, I’d say Pence was the winner, sort of; he managed to get credit for standing up to Trump on Jan. 6 without being booed too loudly, as Chris Christie was, and he came across as a normal candidate — that is, if your idea of normal is an extremist who wants a nationwide ban on abortion. Another Times columnist, Ross Douthat, said of Pence’s performance: “Moral clarity, debating chops, a message frozen in amber in 1985 and a visceral hatred for Vivek Ramaswamy: It won’t get him the nomination but it made for some of the better theater of the night.” James Pindell of The Boston Globe gave Pence an A-plus.

A lot of people thought Haley did well, too. She projected as independent and even somewhat moderate, criticizing Trump for running up the debt. You’d think might hurt her chances of being chosen as Trump’s running mate, but she’s proven over and over that she’ll be whatever she thinks she needs to be.

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The worst thing Ron DeSantis has ever said

Why isn’t this getting more attention? “Slitting the throats” of “deep state” federal bureaucrats? In better times, DeSantis would have been forced out of the race. (Free link.)

The two largest federal employee unions on Thursday denounced Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent vow that as president he would “start slitting throats” in the federal bureaucracy — the latest escalation in intensifying Republican attacks on government operations they want to slash or eliminate.

DeSantis, whose campaign for the GOP nomination has included promises to downsize agencies and fire bureaucrats, made the comments this weekend in New Hampshire while criticizing the “deep state,” echoing a term regularly used by former president Donald Trump to deride Washington.

The Trump indictment is gratifying, yet it underscores some sickening truths

As gratified as I am that Donald Trump is being held to account for his reprehensible behavior, I find that Friday’s developments have left me sad as well. There are three reasons for this.

First, the alleged crimes documented by special prosecutor Jack Smith are so much worse than we had been expecting. Nuclear secrets? Plans for invading an unnamed country, probably Iran? If Trump wasn’t actively sharing these documents with our enemies, he was nevertheless storing them with shocking disregard for who might go looking for them. We have to assume that Mar-a-Lago was crawling with spies.

Then there is his massive hubris and stupidity. All of the charges, without exception, stem from documents he held onto after he was given a chance to return them. One commentator — I forget who — referred to this as a “get out of jail” gift that he nevertheless spurned. Just incredible.

Second, there is the dispiriting fact that there is literally no bottom for Republican elected officials in defending Trump. The top two elected officials in the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Majority Leader Steve Scalise, have both attacked law enforcement and stood by Trump, denouncing the “weaponization” of the Department of Justice and the FBI. So, too, has Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is so far the only plausible Trump rival for the 2024 presidential nomination. A pardon looms if a Republican — maybe even Trump — defeats President Biden.

Third, there is the reality (or Reality, if you prefer) that the crimes with which Trump has been charged would land any ordinary person in prison for a very long time if they were convicted — and yet the prospect of Trump’s ending up behind bars in the event of a guilty verdict seems unlikely in the extreme.

If Trump is convicted of what he’s been charged with, he should spend the rest of his life in federal custody. Does anyone really expect to see that? No, of course not. And thus our two-track system of justice — one for the rich and powerful, one for everyone else — will continue unchallenged.

E&P reminds us of an editor’s protest against the GOP’s ‘fascist’ press restrictions

J.D. Vance. Photo (cc) 2021 by Gage Skidmore.

The news media trade publication Editor & Publisher has republished a letter to readers from Chris Quinn, the editor of Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, about press restrictions imposed by supporters of Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance. Quinn’s letter originally appeared Aug. 20, but with the campaign for the midterm elections down to their final days, it’s well worth pondering what Quinn had to say two months ago. Kudos to E&P for reminding us.

Quinn told his readers that reporters from his news organization did not attend a Vance rally featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis because they could not abide by the rules that were imposed. Quinn wrote:

The worst of the rules was one prohibiting reporters from interviewing attendees not first approved by the organizers of the event for DeSantis and Vance. When we cover events, we talk to anyone we wish. It’s America, after all, the land of free speech. At least that’s America as it exists today. Maybe not the America that would exist under DeSantis and Vance.

Other beyond-the-pale rules were that any news video shot at the event would have to be shared with the organizers for promotional use; that the organizers had the right to know how any footage would be used; and that reporters could not enter the hotel rooms of anyone at the event, even if invited in for an interview. Quinn also had this to say:

Think about what they were doing here. They were staging an event to rally people to vote for Vance while instituting the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime. A wannabe U.S. Senator, and maybe a wannabe president.

Wow.

The event was organized by Turning Point Action, a nonprofit associated with Donald Trump. But as Quinn rightly observed, it was essentially a Vance rally, and if he had any problems with the restrictions placed on journalists, he was notably silent about it.

Quinn concluded: “I should note that I’m writing this before the event occurred, so if something changed at the last minute, this piece would omit it.” But Turning Point did not back down, according to a piece that Jon Allsop wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review several days later. As Allsop put it:

The Turning Point rules may have been eye-catchingly baroque, but they form part of a much broader pattern of restrictions on mainstream-media access to candidates and events — a long-standing bane of political journalism that has significantly intensified on the GOP side of the aisle in the Trump era.

So here we are, on the brink of one and possibly both branches of Congress flipping back to Republican rule. There’s really no way for journalists to fight it except to refuse, and f that means giving Republican candidates less coverage, so be it. Meanwhile, the dividing of America into two camps, one small-“d” democratic and the other authoritarian — or fascist, as Quinn put it — continues apace.

Ron DeSantis, public education and the authoritarian impulse

Ron DeSantis. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

Update: CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale reports that faculty and students would not be required to answer the survey, although colleges and universities will be required to administer it.

There isn’t a high-ranking elected official in the country today who embraces repression more than Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

DeSantis, a Republican who’s positioning himself to run for president in 2024 if Donald Trump doesn’t — or maybe even if he does — has a particular fixation on education, pushing through the state’s notorious “don’t say gay” law (which prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity) and, through his allies, banning three professors at the University of Florida from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state involving its restrictive voting-rights law (he backed down).

The latest outrage is a bill DeSantis signed into law this week that requires public universities to conduct a survey in which faculty members and students would be required asked to reveal their political beliefs. As Ana Ceballos reports in the Tampa Bay Times, the measure is part of DeSantis’ ongoing war against leftist beliefs on campus, and that “budget cuts could be looming if universities and colleges are found to be ‘indoctrinating’ students.” She quotes DeSantis as saying:

It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately, now the norm is, these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.

Writing in Salon, Brett Bachman adds: “Based on the bill’s language, survey responses will not necessarily be anonymous — sparking worries among many professors and other university staff that they may be targeted, held back in their careers or even fired for their beliefs.”

Freedom of expression on college campuses has become a crusade on the right — yet it seems that the more grotesque examples of campus censorship come from the right, whether it be a campaign to delay tenure for the 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina, to Trump’s threat in 2019 to cut federal funds to institutions that failed to protect free speech as defined by him, to DeSantis’ various outbursts.

DeSantis is one of the most dangerous politicians in the U.S. — a smarter, more disciplined Trump who might very well win the 2024 election, especially given the media’s desire to normalize him and get back to the business of covering politics like a sporting event. His attempts to silence the academy ought to serve as a signal as to what he’s really all about: the unsmiling face of authoritarianism.

Mass. law governing legal ads needs to be updated to include digital-only outlets

Legal advertising has been a mainstay of the press since Colonial times. Official announcements of bids for government work, auctions and the like bring in a lot of revenue, and there were papers that were literally founded in order to be paid for publishing public notices.

But the future of legal ads in Massachusetts has come into question. State law requires that they be published in the print edition of a newspaper that circulates in the relevant city, town or county — and Gannett next month will be closing at least 19 local print weeklies after shutting down at least a half-dozen in 2021. Where will you publish legal ads?

I know that this has long been a thorn in the side of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit digital news outlet that would like to get its share of legals. Instead, those ads are published in Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman, whose paid circulation is less than 500, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. By contrast, the Citizen’s daily newsletter has more than 2,000 subscribers, and its website recorded some 133,000 users during the first half of 2021.

And now the Minuteman is closing. The assumption is that the legal ads will be run in The Sun of Lowell, a daily with virtually no presence in Bedford.

The current, confusingly worded law allows for the online publication of legal ads, but they must also be published in a print edition. State Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat, responded to my inquiry on Twitter by saying that he’s working with Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley, to change that and allow for legals in digital-only publications.

Gannett also publishes the weekly Wellesley Townsman, which is not among the print weeklies that the chain will be closing. But who knows what the next round of cuts will bring? Moreover, Wellesley is home to the independent, online-only Swellesley Report, which would surely like a share of those legals. No doubt that’s part of what has piqued Rep. Peisch’s interest.

All of this comes at a time when the idea of publishing legal ads in news outlets is under assault. Why should the government subsidize journalism through advertising when it can publish legals for free on its own websites?

Florida is going through this right now. It was only recently that the state passed a law allowing government officials to advertise on news websites instead of in print newspapers if they so chose. But as Gretchen A. Peck recently reported in the trade publication Editor & Publisher, a proposal is being pushed through the state legislature that would allow for free publication on government websites instead.

The legislation has all the appearances of being part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war against the press. “This is just yet another of his red meat, hateful, harmful, hurtful pieces of legislation that he has been pushing this legislative session,” Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer told E&P.

But to get back to the question of why: The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, which maintains a database of legal ads published throughout the state, offers four reasons for publishing ads in news outlets rather than on government websites:

  • “They must be published in a forum independent of the government.
  • “The published notice must be preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived.
  • “The notice must be conveniently accessible by all segments of society.
  • “The notice’s publication must be verifiable (by way of an affidavit of publication).”

In other words, the news-outlet requirement is an anti-corruption measure. If government is allowed to publish its own legal notices, who’s to say that some of them won’t be buried for some nefarious purpose? Who’s to say the wording won’t be changed?

The involvement of news organizations in legal ads is essential not just as a revenue stream but for ensuring that the government can’t engage in self-dealing. That said, the law needs to be updated. The print requirement has been an anachronism for years, and it’s only getting worse.

University of Florida backs down on speech ban

The University of Florida has backed down from its outrageous refusal to allow three of its professors to serve as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state involving its restrictive new voting-rights law. NPR reports.

Earlier:

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