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Jeff Bezos is reinventing The Washington Post — again. And this time he’s on his own.

Jeff Bezos. Painting (cc) 2017 by thierry ehrmann.

Having tracked the rise of The Washington Post under owner Jeff Bezos, executive editor Marty Baron and chief technologist Shailesh Prakash in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I’ve watched its dispiriting decline with sadness. On Sunday, that decline was underscored by Sally Buzbee’s departure as executive editor. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has the story.

Lest we forget, Bezos did not choose Baron and Prakash; rather, he inherited them from Graham family ownership after he bought the paper in 2013 for $250 million. And though Bezos had the good sense to keep them and give them the resources they needed, it was their vision that created a great digital, nationally focused news organization that was positioned perfectly for the rise of Trump. Maybe an early warning sign was that when Bezos did get to make a big hire, he chose Ronald Reagan apparatchik Fred Ryan as publisher. As Baron makes clear in his book “Collision of Power,” Ryan did not prove to be an inspired choice.

Since Donald Trump left office, it’s been nothing but a downhill slide for the Post, which, according to the new publisher, Will Lewis, lost $77 million last year and about half its audience since 2020. Was that entirely the fault of Buzbee, a former Associated Press executive editor who took the Post’s helm after Baron retired in early 2021? Of course not. But it all happened on her watch, so it’s not a surprise that she’s leaving.

As Poynter media reporter Tom Jones points out, it’s not 100% clear that Buzbee was fired. It’s possible that she decided she wanted nothing to do with Lewis’ recently articulated vision, which includes having “AI everywhere in our newsroom,” according to Semafor media reporter Max Tani. Ugh.

The new executive team sets off some alarm bells. Lewis is a former publisher of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal who reportedly was involved in helping Murdoch clean up his tabloids’ phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. a dozen years ago, according to David Folkenflik of NPR. Buzbee will be replaced on a temporary basis by Matt Murray, a former editor-in-chief of the Journal. After the 2024 election, Murray will slide over to a newly created position creating service and social media journalism while the main news product will be under the direction of Robert Winnett, currently deputy editor of The Telegraph Media Group, a right-wing news organization. Media critic Dan Gillmor wrote on Mastodon:

The Washington Post is about to lurch sharply to the right politically as former Murdoch apparatchik solidifies his grip on the organization. Current editor Buzbee is out, and he’s bringing in people from Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph (right-wing UK news org).

I’m willing to wait and see, in part because The Wall Street Journal remains a great newspaper notwithstanding its editorial page, whose right-wing orientation precedes Murdoch’s ownership. I’m deeply concerned about what Lewis has in mind with his artificial intelligence initiative, though.

For the second time since he bought it in 2013, Jeff Bezos is faced with the challenge of reinventing The Washington Post. He succeeded spectacularly the first time, with years of growth, profitability and influence. This time, though, he’s doing it with people he chose himself — and there are caution signs all over the place.

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Guilty x 34

Some notable front pages reporting Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 counts of falsifying business records in order to cover up payments to the porn star Stormy Daniels — payments aimed at keeping their sexual encounter out of the headlines just before the 2016 election.

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‘Catch and kill’ isn’t new; plus, Facebook spurns news, and why the WSJ will miss Rupe

Three media tidbits for your Tuesday morning:

• Catch and kill. The National Enquirer’s practice of paying for stories and of deep-sixing articles in order to gain power and influence over someone — known as “catch and kill” — didn’t start with former Enquirer owner David Pecker. Nor was Donald Trump the first alleged beneficiary. I recommend “Scandalous,” a 2019 documentary about the Enquirer that is revealing and highly entertaining. Both Bob Hope and Bill Cosby were caught dead to rights in tawdry sexual affairs, and the Enquirer killed stories about those affairs in order to force them to cooperative in cheery feature stories. Pecker’s innovation was to politicize the practice.

• Facebook and news. Back when I was reporting my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” news organizations desperately sought to use Facebook as a way of distributing their journalism. News publishers liked to talk about “the barbell,” by which they would attract readers on Facebook (one end of the barbell) and try to get them to migrate to their own digital products (the other end of the barbell), where, it was hoped, they would become paying subscribers.

In the years since, Meta executives have decided news just isn’t worth it and have throttled journalism on Facebook and other products, including Threads and Instagram. How bad is it? The Washington Post has conducted a data analysis (free link) showing that “the 25 most-cited news organizations in the United States lost 75 percent of their total user engagement on Facebook” between the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2024. It’s further evidence that news organizations’ business models shouldn’t be dependent on giant corporations with their own agendas.

• The WSJ will miss Murdoch. Axel Springer, the right-wing German media conglomerate that took over Politico in 2021, has its sights set on The Wall Street Journal, according to Ben Smith of Semafor. Rupert Murdoch, through his control of the Fox News Channel and other outlets on three continents, may be the most malignant media magnate on the planet. But he’s been a surprisingly good steward of the Journal, which after 17 years of his ownership remains one of our great newspapers. At 93, he won’t be in charge too much longer. And here’s a quote from Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner that you might enjoy: “I’m all for climate change. We shouldn’t fight climate change but adjust to it.”

I’ll grant you that’s something you might see on the Journal’s editorial page even  now. Murdoch, though, has been better about not letting that bleed into the news pages than Axel Springer might be.

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Bring him home

Via CNN

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Print circulation drops again. But why are we still counting?

It has become a strange and perverse exercise. Every so often, Press Gazette, a U.K.-based website that tracks developments in the news business, rounds up the latest weekday print circulation figures reported by U.S. newspapers and informs us that, yes, they’re down once again. For instance: The Wall Street Journal, 555,200, a drop of 14% over the previous year; The New York Times, 267,600, down 13%; The Boston Globe, 56,900, down 11%.

These same news organizations, though, are succeeding in selling digital subscriptions. The Times has 9.7 million digital-only subscribers. The Journal is around 3.5 million. The Globe has about 250,000, and CEO Linda Henry has announced a push for 400,000.

Why does Press Gazette persist in tracking these print-only numbers? Because they’re there. Twice a year, the Alliance for Audited Media reports print circulation for every newspaper that’s a member. Reliable digital numbers are much harder to come by.

As the Press Gazette itself concedes: “While print remains an important revenue stream, data on digital subscriptions presents a more promising picture.” No kidding.

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Despite cuts, there’s no shortage of DC coverage

News organizations ranging from the Los Angeles Times to The Wall Street Journal are cutting their Washington bureaus. Will that detract from public knowledge about the 2024 presidential campaign? I told Mark Stenberg of Adweek that it would not — and we’d be better off if we’d focus on areas where there are real reporting deficits. Stenberg writes:

The internet has eliminated the geographical monopolies these publishers once had, and readers can now turn to any number of D.C. outlets for their political coverage, said Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy.

Local outlets still need to ensure that their readers have access to reporting about how federal legislation affects their local government, but there are dozens of publishers covering the presidential election. Voters looking for insightful coverage of national races have, still, more coverage than they can make sense of.

“Does anyone believe there are too few people covering the election?” Kennedy said. “If anything, some of these reporters could be reassigned to cover other stories that are going untold.”

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Mainstream media, elected officials feed misinformation in Israel-Hamas war

The war between Israel and Hamas has given rise to a cornucopia of misinformation and disinformation on social media — especially with Elon Musk’s mean, shrunken version of X/Twitter doing little to screen out the worst stuff. But we should keep in mind that several dangerously wrong stories have been reported or amplified by mainstream news sources and political figures.

The most significant is the explosion at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, a disaster that has reportedly claimed hundreds of  lives. Palestinian officials immediately blamed the blast on an Israeli rocket attack and, in the absence of any independent verification, news outlets were quick to report that claim as though it were fact. I’ll use The New York Times as an example, but it was hardly alone. According to the Internet Archive, the Times homepage published a headline on Tuesday at 2:25 p.m. that said, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” Over the next hour or so, a subhead appeared saying that Israel was urging “caution.” Then, finally, at 3:46 p.m., came a subhead that stated, “Israelis Say Misfired Palestinian Rocket Was Cause of Explosion.” (I’m using the time stamps from the Times’ live blog rather than the Internet Archive’s.)

The Times’ evolution played out on Threads as well. Threads posts are not time-stamped, and at the moment this says only “one day ago,” though it was clearly posted sometime in the afternoon on Tuesday: “Breaking News: An Israeli airstrike hit a Gaza hospital on Tuesday, killing at least 200 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, which said the number of casualties was expected to rise.” A short time later: “Update: At least 500 people were killed by an Israeli airstrike at a Gaza hospital, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.” Then, finally: “Update: The Israeli military said its intelligence indicated that a rocket that malfunctioned after it was launched by a Palestinian armed group was responsible for the explosion that killed hundreds of people at a Gaza City hospital.”

Screen image from Threads

Now, we still don’t know exactly what happened. But the weight of the evidence suggests that Israeli officials are correct in asserting that the missile was actually fired by Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas, and that it accidentally damaged the hospital. BBC News reported Wednesday that the evidence is “inconclusive” but added: “Three experts we spoke to say it is not consistent with what you would expect from a typical Israeli air strike with a large munition.” The independent investigative project Bellingcat cited a tweet by Marc Garlasco, a war-crimes investigator, who said, “Whatever hit the hospital in #Gaza it wasn’t an airstrike.”

The problem is that the initial incautious reports by the Times and other mainstream media, quoting Palestinian statements as though they were fact, clearly created a public narrative that Israel had committed a horrific war crime by bombing a hospital and killing hundreds of people. Indeed, two Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar, tweeted out the original unverified report.

Two other examples:

• The claim that Hamas terrorists beheaded Israeli babies has become so widespread that President Biden repeated it several days ago, and even appeared to say that he had seen photographic evidence. The White House had to walk that back. But though Hamas acted brutally in slaughtering civilians and taking hostages, no evidence has emerged for that particular incendiary assertion. The fact-checking website Snopes reports: “As we looked into the claim, we found contradictory reports from journalists, Israeli army officials, and almost no independent corroborations of the alleged war crime, leading to concerns among fact-checkers that such a claim may be premature or unsubstantiated.”

• There remains no evidence beyond an initial report by The Wall Street Journal that Iran was directly involved in planning and approving Hamas’ attack on Israel. This was an especially dangerous assertion since it could have led to a wider war — and still could if the Journal’s story ends up being true. At the moment, though, it appears that the Journal’s reliance on Hamas and Hezbollah sources were spreading misinformation, perhaps deliberately. Indeed, Max Tani of Semafor reported earlier this week that the Journal’s own Washington bureau had raised “concerns about the story” before it was published.

Correction: This post originally said that the hospital had been “obliterated,” but the evidence suggests that the damage fell well short of that.

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That WSJ report on Iranian involvement in Hamas’ attack is coming under question

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. 2015 photo by President of Russia.

One of the more chilling early reports following Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel was that Iran was involved in planning and approving it. The story, reported by The Wall Street Journal (free link), began:

Iranian security officials helped plan Hamas’s Saturday surprise attack on Israel and gave the green light for the assault at a meeting in Beirut last Monday, according to senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah, another Iran-backed militant group.

The story conjured up the horrifying possibility of a multi-front war dragging in not just Israel and Iran but possibly the United States and Russia as well. It was a Journal exclusive, and the paper has not retracted its report. But the problem with an exclusive is that, as the days go by and no one else matches your reporting, it starts to look like an exclusive for the wrong reasons.

Almost immediately, Josh Marshall took note of the Journal’s reliance on sources inside Hamas and Hezbollah and dismissed the notion of any direct tie between Iran and Hamas’ actions over the weekend. “Anyone looking for a rationale for Israel or the U.S. to declare war on Iran needs to be smacked down hard and ignored,” he wrote. Of course, Iran and Hamas are close allies, and Marshall was careful to note this:

Iran funds and arms Hamas and is cheering on their attack. Hamas also receives training from the network of Iran-backed militias in the region. So it’s not like there’s some big mystery about whose side they’re on or whether they support and supply Hamas.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies could find no evidence that Iranian officials had advance knowledge of the Hamas attack. The account begins:

The United States has collected multiple pieces of intelligence that show that key Iranian leaders were surprised by the Hamas attack in Israel, information that has fueled U.S. doubts that Iran played a direct role in planning the assault, according to several American officials.

The events that are unfolding right now are bad enough without whipping up hysteria that could lead to a wider, even more deadly conflict. Although we can’t know for sure, it looks like the Journal might have gotten played. It’s in Hamas’ interests to drag Iran into the war, and of course Iran would like to stop peace talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But that doesn’t make the Journal’s story true, and we should regard it as unsupported unless more evidence emerges.

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How Rupert Murdoch saved the Boston Herald — not just once, but twice

As I noted Thursday, one of the few positive contributions Rupert Murdoch can take credit for is preserving The Wall Street Journal as a great national newspaper. Another is that he saved the Boston Herald — not once, but twice. Larry Edelman of The Boston Globe writes about the first time (he interviewed me). I tell that story as well as the tale of Murdoch’s second rescue in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” which I excerpt below.

The Hearst chain, which had converted the Herald (known then as the Herald American) to a tabloid during the final years of its ownership, had run out the string by 1982. I remember one old-timer telling me that, with closure just hours away, workers came in to rip out the vending machines from the paper’s hulking plant in the South End. At the last minute, Murdoch reached a deal with the unions and the paper was saved.

Under Murdoch’s ownership, the Herald established itself as a feisty alternative to the Globe, sometimes beating its larger rival on important local stories. That continued in the 1990s after Murdoch’s protégé Pat Purcell bought it from him. To this day there are people who believe that Murdoch continued to pull the strings behind the scenes, but I never believed it. Murdoch just didn’t care that much about the Herald, and I don’t doubt that he let Purcell have it on extremely favorable terms.

Unfortunately, the Herald’s financial model pretty much stopped working in the early 2000s, and today it’s owned by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, famous for sucking the life out of its papers. Alden owns two other Massachusetts papers as well — The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

At one time Murdoch also owned the Ottaway chain, which included the Cape Cod Times and some small weeklies, including the Middleboro Gazette, where I grew up. Murdoch is fondly remembered by taking a hands-off approach, but I honestly wonder whether he even knew those papers were part of his empire. The Gazette was later closed by the Gannett chain, and today Middleborough is served by an independent startup, Nemasket Weekly.

Here’s what I wrote in “Moguls” about the Herald and Murdoch’s TV station, WFXT-TV (Channel 25), which he sold off a few years ago. The “endless struggle” I refer to was the Herald’s long-time ownership of Channel 5, an existential threat to the Globe that was removed when the Globe reported that its rival had gained the broadcast license because of corruption at the Federal Communications Commission. The Herald was stripped of its license in 1972, and Hearst swooped in to pick up the pieces.

The Globe’s endless struggle with the Herald’s broadcast ambitions played itself out in one last, faint echo in 1988, when Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, purchased Channel 25. Ted Kennedy, by then a leading member of the Senate, quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver to its rule prohibiting someone from owning both a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market. At the time, I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle, which served Woburn and several surrounding communities north of Boston. I remember covering a local appearance by Kennedy as he was dogged by the Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief. “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?” the persistent Woodlief asked him several times.

Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald; he repurchased the TV station after selling the Herald to Purcell. But the Herald columnist Howie Carr remained bitter. He told me years later that Kennedy’s actions were worse than [Globe ally Tip] O’Neill’s, since O’Neill was just trying to help one of several papers rather than destroy the Globe’s only daily competitor. “I think Tip was just trying to get an ally,” Carr said, “whereas Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends.”

The liberal reputation the Globe developed during the Winship era was cemented during Boston’s school desegregation crisis of the mid-1970s, when the Globe wholeheartedly supported federal judge Arthur Garrity’s order to bus children to different neighborhoods in the city to achieve racial balance. It was a terrible time in Boston, as white racism ran rampant and bullets were fired into the Globe’s headquarters and at one of the paper’s delivery trucks. The Globe took the right moral stand, and its coverage earned the paper its second Pulitzer for Public Service. Winship in those years enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest editors in the country. But it was also during those years that the Globe became known as the paper of Boston’s suburban liberal elite and the Herald that of the urban white working class, a dichotomy that has persisted to this day.

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No one has done more to harm our public discourse than Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Hudson Institute.

Over the past 50 or so years, no one has done more harm to our public discourse than Rupert Murdoch, who announced earlier today that he’s semi-retiring from his position as one of the world’s most powerful media moguls. Since his son Lachlan Murdoch will remain in charge of the family’s various media holdings, as he has been for several years now, today’s news should be regarded as little more than a symbolic moment at which we can take stock, once again, of the damage Rupe hath wrought.

Murdoch, now 92, wields enormous power through his various media holdings in his native Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Over time, though, that power increasingly has become centered within the Fox News Channel, launched in 1996 as a supposedly conservative alternative to CNN. (MSNBC, founded the same year, didn’t embrace its liberal identity until much later.) Fox News was never what you might call a normal conservative operation — despite initially billing itself as “fair and balanced,” it always trafficked in anger and mudslinging, epitomized by its most popular host, Bill O’Reilly.

Since the rise of Donald Trump, though, Fox News has gone crazy, embracing Trump’s lies about the election, engaging in climate-change denialism, spreading falsehoods about COVID and vaccines, and generally spewing weaponized right-wing propaganda in order to goose ratings and keep viewers glued to the set. I’m not a fan of cable news talk shows as a genre, but at least CNN’s and MSNBC’s are grounded in reality. Fox News lies. It caught up with the Murdochs in 2023, when they agreed to pay more than $787 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the Dominion voting machine company, whose business had suffered at the hands of a smear campaign by Trump insiders, amplified by Fox. That, in turn, led (or seemed to lead) to the firing of Fox’s biggest star, the white supremacist Tucker Carlson.

Through it all, Murdoch came across as the ultimate cynic. Numerous profiles have portrayed him as someone who cares about nothing but ratings and money. He holds Trump in contempt, and he made several attempts to cast him aside — trying and failing to take Trump out during the 2016 presidential campaign and then initially refusing to embrace election lies after Trump was defeated by Joe Biden in 2020. Both times, Murdoch and Fox were dragged back to Trump at the first sign that their ratings might suffer. You might say that Murdoch followed rather than led his audience, but it was a symbiotic relationship. If Murdoch had any courage, he could have weathered the storm, and Fox News might have emerged stronger than ever. As it is, it’s now a wounded behemoth, kept alive by an elderly audience that is averse to digital and without any clear path forward beyond the next few years.

How much does this matter? In recent years, many observers, including me, have blamed our cultural descent into alternative reality and authoritarianism on social media, especially Facebook and to a lesser extent the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter. That may always have been exaggerated, though. In a new piece on polarization for The New York Times, Thomas Edsall places the blame squarely on cable news.

If you want to give Murdoch credit for one thing, it’s that he maintained The Wall Street Journal as one of our three great national newspapers after he bought it. Sure, the opinion section is nutty, but that was true long before Murdoch arrived on the scene. On the other hand, he took a respectable if fading liberal newspaper, the New York Post, in an aggressively downmarket direction after he purchased it in 1976. As a leading retail executive supposedly said when Murdoch complained about the lack of advertising support, “But Rupert, Rupert, your readers are my shoplifters.”

Murdoch’s announcement that he’s reducing his role coincides with the news that the celebrity journalist Michael Wolff is about to release a book titled “The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty.” It is, in a sense, the perfect match: a book by an author who’s often accused of playing fast and loose with the facts writing about an empire built on a foundation of lies. As CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote earlier this week, “Wolff has a history of printing claims that end up being strongly disputed by the subjects themselves.” Still, a book written by a bestselling author that describes one host, Laura Ingraham, as a “drunk” and another, Sean Hannity, as a “moron” is sure to get attention.

This would be an excellent time to say good riddance to Murdoch except that he’s not going anywhere, and it wouldn’t matter that much even if he was. Unlike Rupert, Lachlan Murdoch is said to hold genuinely right-wing views. Thus the House That Murdoch Built will continue to wreak havoc at least for a few more years. I wish I thought that what comes after will be better, but I’m not holding out much hope.

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