One way forward for the sputtering Washington Post: Reconnect with local news

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Back when I was reporting on The Washington Post in 2015 and ’16 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper was on a roll. Paid digital subscriptions were skyrocketing, profits were rolling in even as the staff was growing, and it was breaking story after story about the rising menace of Donald Trump. David Fahrenthold broke the two of the most important stories of the 2016 campaign: the corruption at the heart of the Trump Foundation and the audio tape on which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Now Fahrenthold is at the Post’s ancient rival, The New York Times, and the Post itself is sputtering. The legendary executive editor, Marty Baron, retired in March 2021. His successor, Sally Buzbee, has had the unenviable task of maneuvering the Post through the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with controversies such as the Dave Weigel-Felicia Sonmez Twitter mess, which led to Sonmez being fired. And now the Times’ Benjamin Mullin (reprising a story he cowrote last December when he was still at The Wall Street Journal) and Katie Robertson are reporting (free link) that paid circulation is down, profits have turned into losses, and owner Jeff Bezos seems less interested in the place than he was in the early years of his ownership.

What went wrong? Bezos’ principal insight was his realization that there was room for a third great national newspaper alongside the Times and The Wall Street Journal — and that, in the digital age, he didn’t need to roll out print beyond the D.C. area. The Post was cheaper than the Times or the Journal and was available everywhere, through Amazon Prime and on Fire tablets.

Eventually, though, the Post ran afoul of some inherent contradictions. The biggest is this: It hasn’t really differentiated itself from the Times, which has left the Post in the unenviable position of being a less comprehensive competitor. The Times simply has more, especially in international coverage such as the war in Ukraine as well as arts and culture. The Post’s advantages are that it’s cheaper and its digital products offer a better user interface. Contrast that with the Journal, which really is different from the Times in its focus on business news and its hard-right opinion pages.

Judging from the Times story, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Post publisher Fred Ryan get his gold watch sometime in the near future. Buzbee hasn’t had a fair chance to make her mark, and I doubt that Baron would have navigated the past year any more surely than she has. In retrospect, it looks like Baron timed his exit perfectly.

In the long run — and the short run — the Post needs to establish itself as the go-to place for a certain kind of coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Its political reporting is broad and deep, but so is the Times’. With a much smaller staff than the Times has, what opportunities are there? In the final years of Graham family control, the Post emphasized regional coverage. Without abandoning its commitment to national and international news, maybe the way forward for the Post is to reconnect with its local audience.

How the very real story of a 10-year-old rape victim turned into a media fiasco

Experienced media critics know — or should know — that you don’t try to knock down a story based on an on-the-record source unless you’ve got the goods. But that didn’t stop Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler from wading in over an article published on July 1 in the Indianapolis Star by Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette. They reported that patients were traveling to Indiana, where abortion is still legal, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Kessler’s interest was sparked by the lead anecdote. Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an OB/GYN in Indianapolis, said she’d been contacted by a doctor in Ohio and asked if she could help arrange an abortion for a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim. Noting that Indiana might soon outlaw abortion as well, Bernard was quoted in the article as saying: “It’s hard to imagine that in just a few short weeks we will have no ability to provide that care.”

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By the time Kessler decided to weigh in, the story had gone viral, cited by President Biden and criticized in anti-abortion circles for its lack of verifying details. Kessler wrote:

The only source cited for the anecdote was Bernard. She’s on the record, but there is no indication that the newspaper made other attempts to confirm her account. The story’s lead reporter, Shari Rudavsky, did not respond to a query asking whether additional sourcing was obtained. A Gannett spokeswoman provided a comment from Bro Krift, the newspaper’s executive editor: “The facts and sourcing about people crossing state lines into Indiana, including the 10-year-old girl, for abortions are clear. We have no additional comment at this time.”

Kessler also reported that Bernard declined to provide any additional details when he contacted her by email, and that he could find no evidence that a criminal investigation might be under way. Here is Kessler’s conclusion:

This is a very difficult story to check. Bernard is on the record, but obtaining documents or other confirmation is all but impossible without details that would identify the locality where the rape occurred.

With news reports around the globe and now a presidential imprimatur, however, the story has acquired the status of a “fact” no matter its provenance. If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.

I tweeted at Kessler last Saturday:Glenn, you say you asked Dr. Bernard for the name of her colleague and the city where they’re located, and she declined to answer. But did you press her on her conversation with her colleague and what convinced her that the anecdote is real?

Kessler did not respond. I later found out that Kessler doesn’t reply to tweets but will respond to DMs or emails. It’s in his Twitter bio, but I hadn’t looked. Why would I? I know who he is.

I’m trying to be as clinical as I can here and give Kessler his due for leaving himself open to the possibility that the story might be proven true. But keep in mind that the Star had Bernard on the record telling them that she had been contacted directly by another doctor who wanted to know if she could help with the 10-year-old rape victim. Bernard was not passing along a rumor she’d heard. She had direct knowledge. The story was a little thin since the Star didn’t (and probably couldn’t) verify this horrifying anecdote. But we see thinner stories than this on a regular basis, including in The Washington Post.

Well, you probably know what happened next. On Wednesday, The Columbus Dispatch reported that “a Columbus man has been charged with impregnating a 10-year-old Ohio girl,” thus vindicating both Dr. Bernard and the Star, a sister newspaper. Kessler tweeted:The last line of this fact check was: ‘If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.’ Now, a rapist has been charged and the story has been updated. Getting lots of angry emails but journalism is an accumulation of facts.

Yes, journalism is an accumulation of facts. The problem here is that Kessler lacked sufficient facts to go with his original story, to which an update has been appended. A fair reading of his original piece was that he thought there was a good chance that Bernard’s story wasn’t true, and that the Star reporters were being credulous for passing it along. He wasn’t able to prove it, so he should have just let it go, regardless of what lingering suspicions he might have had.

I’ll repeat — yes, it was a little thin, but we see worse every day. Also: We have no way of knowing whether Bernard might have provided the Star with some confirming details on an off-the-record basis. The Bottom Line, to borrow Kessler’s rubric: He shouldn’t have gone there without convincing evidence that the story wasn’t true.

Now, I’ve gone on at some length about Kessler’s misjudgment while saying nothing about the outrageous rhetoric that played out on the right. That’s because Kessler is a respected journalist working for a careful, highly regarded news organization. It’s fair to hold Kessler and the Post to a higher standard than propaganda outlets — but we also need to acknowledge their toxic, corrosive effect.

Among the worst was the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal, which published an editorial headlined “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm.” The subhead is a howler: “Biden told a tale of a 10-year-old rape victim that no one can identify,” blowing past the reality that the media don’t identify rape victims, let alone those who are 10.

“The tale is a potent post-Roe tale of woe for those who want to make abortion a voting issue this fall,” the Journal wrote. “One problem: There’s no evidence the girl exists.” The shameful editorial, which actually cited the far-right website PJ Media as an authority, has since acquired an editor’s note, and the paper has published a separate, defensive never-mind editorial.

Finally, Laura Hazard Owen of Nieman Lab has written an exceptionally good overview of the whole sorry episode. The headline: “Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?” The early evidence is not encouraging.

Gannett falsely accuses the Journal of smear in report on ad-tech screw-up

They say Indianapolis is lovely in the summer. Photo (cc) 2009 by Willy Feng.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that a glitch in Gannett’s online advertising software had resulted in ads appearing in the wrong places. For instance, to cite an actual example, an ad that was intended for USA Today’s national online audience might instead appear on the website of the Indianapolis Star.

So how did Gannett respond? With a defensive press release that falsely claimed the Journal story “implies Gannett intentionally shared inaccurate information to advertisers over a period of nine months.”

No, it didn’t. You can read the full Journal story, by Patience Haggin, for yourself, but this seems relevant: “Gannett said in a statement that it provided the wrong information and that it regrets the error, which it said was unintentional.” There is not one sentence in Haggin’s article contradicting Gannett’s claim that the error was inadvertent. Of course, the mistake might have been related to the fact that Gannett’s workforce is notoriously overworked and underpaid, but the Journal article didn’t say that, either.

What the story does confirm is that no one knows what is going on in the murky world of programmatic advertising, where digital ad space is sold through automated auctions by Google and, in this case, Gannett. It’s not at all like buying a two-column, six-inch ad on page seven in your local print newspaper. As Braedon Vickers, the ad-industry researcher who discovered the error, told the Journal, “Programmatic advertising relies on a lot of data being self-reported by those selling the ads. That this issue went undetected for so long suggests that the processes in place to verify this information are not sufficient.”

Writing in the trade journal Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck observed that Gannett’s “value proposition and trust” were undermined by the error. But she also quoted Krzysztof Franaszek, the founder of Adalytics Research, who said it appeared exceedingly unlikely that Gannett’s deceptive practices were intentional:

I think it’s likely a simple ad ops error. We tried to analyze this phenomenon from a number of different angles to determine if there was some kind of material benefit to Gannett of doing this, and after an exhaustive enumeration of possibilities, we found no rational explanation of how this would benefit Gannett.

Among the brands affected by the screw-up, according to Vicker, were Nike, Ford, State Farm, Starbucks and Marriott. Gannett’s statement said the error involved less than $10 million in advertising.

Gannett is the country’s largest newspaper chain, owning 100 or so daily newspapers and many hundreds of other media properties in 46 states. The company controls a good share of the local news outlets in Greater Boston and environs — including a number of weekly papers that have gone digital-only in the past year, and which recently dumped community coverage from most of its non-daily titles.

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Can The Washington Post differentiate itself from The New York Times?

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2017 by TEDxColumbiaUniversity.

The Washington Post, on an upward trajectory for most of the time since Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013, has stalled out. At least that’s the gist of a story in The Wall Street Journal by Benjamin Mullin and Alexandra Bruell, who report that the Post is struggling to find its footing now that Donald Trump has left the White House (if not the scene) and interest in political news is on the decline. They write:

The Post, like most major publications, experienced an audience surge during the Trump years, when readers flocked to stories about the controversial Republican administration. Now, the Post is facing a slump that has triggered some soul-searching at the paper, including over the need to invest more in coverage areas outside of politics, according to people familiar with the news outlet’s operations and internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The fate of the Post is of particular interest to me since much of my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” is devoted to the Post under Bezos. When I was reporting for the book, the Post was going great guns, beating the Times on significant stories — especially Trump’s 2016 campaign — and growing so quickly that it seemed possible that it might even shoot past its New York rival.

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Since around the middle of the Trump presidency, though, I’ve had a sense — not confirmed by data, so don’t take this too seriously — that the Post had plateaued. To put it in simple terms, the Post and the Times competed fiercely for several years after Bezos’ arrival, and the Times won.

You can see it in their paid digital subscriptions. The Times now has about 7.6 million, including about 5.6 million subscribers to its core digital news product (the rest subscribe only to a special service like the Times’ cooking app, the crossword puzzle or whatever). And the Times’ numbers keep growing. The Post, by contrast, is at 2.7 million digital-only subscribers, according to the Journal, down from about 3 million at the beginning of the year.

Now, it would be easy to make too much of this difference. Just about every publisher in the country would love to have The Washington Post’s problems. It’s still one of the largest news operations in the U.S., with a deep, talented newsroom. But the numbers do raise some questions about what the Post’s leaders see as their mission.

We have three great national newspapers — the Times, the Post and the Journal. The Times is our biggest and most capable general-interest newspaper. The Journal has a business focus and a right-wing opinion page, which offers an alternative (to be polite) to what you see in most newspaper opinion sections. The Journal, like the Post, has about 2.7 million paid digital subscribers. Unlike the Post, though, the Journal’s total is rising; in 2020, it was less than 2.3 million.

It seems to me that the Post finds itself in a difficult position — competing directly with the Times for exactly the same national audience and falling behind, and not able to differentiate itself from the Times the way the Journal has. The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who succeeded Marty Baron earlier this year after serving as The Associated Press’ top editor, hasn’t really said how she’s going to address that. Indeed, in a recent appearance on Kara Swisher’s New York Times podcast, she showed a remarkable ability not to be pinned down on much of anything.

The Times is far from perfect, of course. Its political coverage, in particular, drives me crazy with its frequent embrace of false equivalence at a time when one of our two major political parties has devolved into an authoritarian, antidemocratic force. The Post is better at avoiding that trap. Its technology is superior to the Times’, too. Overall, though, the Times offers a better, more comprehensive report, especially in areas like international news, business and culture.

It’s good for democracy to have two large, general-interest national papers battling it out. The Post isn’t going away. But you have to wonder what the future of the Times-Post rivalry is going to look like. Back in the 1970s, when the rivalry was especially pitched, the Times’ and Post’s readership bases were pretty much restricted to their geographic areas. Now they are both available nationally and internationally, making it easy to choose one over the other.

In effect, the Times and the Post are now competing in a winner-take-all economy. I hope there continues to be room for both.

No, giving away the news in the mid-’90s was not a misguided strategy

There are a few problems with the premise of New York Times reporter Edmund Lee’s long Sunday feature on reinvention efforts at The Wall Street Journal. We’ve been talking about this on Twitter, and I thought I’d share what I and a few others have been saying. Here’s the paragraph that Lee uses to frame his story:

The Journal got digital publishing right before anyone else. It was one of the few news organizations to charge readers for online access starting in 1996, during the days of dial-up internet. At the time, most other publications, including The New York Times, bought into the mantra that “information wants to be free” and ended up paying dearly for what turned out to be a misguided business strategy.

This is wrong in virtually every respect.

First, in the early days of the web, there was no reason to think a general interest newspaper couldn’t thrive by giving away its journalism and supporting it with advertising. This was, after all, before Craigslist, Google and Facebook came along, and newspaper executives’ heads were filled with visions of multimedia ads that they would control. It wasn’t at all obvious in the mid-’90s that it wouldn’t work out.

Second, the Journal is not a general interest newspaper. It’s a specialty publication, and even in the days of the free web it was understood that actionable financial information was one of the few things that people would pay for.

Third, many if not most subscribers pay for the Journal through their expense accounts. Their employers wanted them to switch from expensive print subscriptions to relatively cheap digital.

Finally, and most important, is Lee’s truncating of Stewart Brand’s famous 1984 quote. Lee is hardly the first reporter to do that and thus leave a false impression. But in the case of the Journal, the part that gets left out is more important than the “information wants to be free” canard. Here is what Brand said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.*

The Journal epitomizes the “information wants to be expensive” part of Brand’s quote, because news that you can use to make money is by definition “valuable.”

The rest of Lee’s story is well-reported and interesting. But the paragraph he uses to frame it, fairly high up in the piece, is just a mess.

*Update: As Donna Halper points out in the comments, I used the cleaned-up version of Brand’s full quote that is usually cited. But, in fact, it’s not quite word for word — and Brand’s use of “almost” shades the meaning even further:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz [Brand was replying to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak] — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.

Wall St. Journal’s newsroom calls out opinion section over Pence’s COVID falsehoods

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:

Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.

According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.

We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.

I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.

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The Wall Street Journal takes on the local news crisis

Wall Street Journal reporters Keach Hagey, Lukas I. Alpert and Yaryna Serkez weigh in today with a comprehensive overview of the crisis threatening local newspapers — a crisis that contrasts with the relative good health of the three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Journal.

It’s well worth reading, even if there’s nothing especially new. Two quick observations:

1. Although the story pays lip service to the harmful effects of chain ownership, it doesn’t quite get at the fundamental problems: the debt amassed to build the chain, the lack of investment in technology, and the drain created by having to export a good chunk of revenues to some distant corporate headquarters.

2. The Journal also calls The Boston Globe a “notable outlier” among regional papers for its relative success in building digital subscriptions and maintaining a decent-size newsroom. The obvious if unmade argument is that other papers could do the same with committed local owners.

Globe owner John Henry is not perfect, but MediaNews Group (the new name for Digital First Media), Gannett or GateHouse would likely have cut the newsroom of roughly 220 people by another 100 or so.

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Pulitzer notes: Why does Murdoch allow his Wall Street Journal to torment Trump?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

During the past two months, major investigative articles in The New YorkerThe New York Times Magazine, and The Intercept have been published about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and how it has fused with right-wing populist governments on three continents — including President Trump’s administration in the United States — in order to enhance his family’s power and wealth.

So it’s no small irony that, on Monday, the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded to Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal for exposing the hush money that Trump paid to Stephanie Clifford (better known as Stormy Daniels) and Karen McDougal. As the Pulitzer announcement put it, the award was “for uncovering President Trump’s secret payoffs to two women during his campaign who claimed to have had affairs with him, and the web of supporters who facilitated the transactions, triggering criminal inquiries and calls for impeachment.”

At least to this point, the Journal’s reporting has created more of a legal minefield for the president than has special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — although that may change when the redacted version of the Mueller report is released later this week. Thus it’s worth pondering why Murdoch, who has transformed the Fox News Channel into a full-throated propaganda vehicle for Trump and his hateful utterances, has nevertheless maintained the Journal’s excellence during his decade-plus of ownership.

My guesses: The Journal gives Murdoch a cachet he otherwise wouldn’t have; and he knows that a high-brow newspaper has nowhere near the power to mold public opinion as does a top-rated cable network whose hosts endorse and amplify Trump’s fact-free rhetoric. The Journal’s reporting may create problems for Trump — but nothing that can’t be drowned out by the likes of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

One other Trump-related note: The New York Times won the Explanatory Reporting award for its massive investigation into Trump’s false claims that he became wealthy as a result of his own efforts as well for reporting about his family’s reliance on a wide variety of tax-avoidance schemes.

***

Trump and Murdoch aside, you couldn’t look over the list of Pulitzer winners without feeling profound sadness. There was the Special Citation for the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, whose journalists kept reporting after five of its employees were killed by a gunman last June. There was the Breaking News Reporting Award that went to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in October.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel won the most prestigious of the Pulitzers, for Public Service, “for exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.” The Washington Post was a finalist in that same category for its reporting on the killing of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently at the hands of the Saudi regime.

As Andrew McCormick of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy also took note in her remarks of obituaries published by The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness, even in the most wrenching of circumstances,” Canedy said. And as McCormick observed, “It was, unfortunately, the theme of Canedy’s remarks and of the 103rd iteration of the prizes this year: the rising tide of violence in the country, which journalists have had to cover and of which they have become targets themselves.”

***

A few other Pulitzer notes:

• Boston Globe photographer Craig Walker, a two-time Pulitzer winner, was a finalist in Feature Photography for his work documenting the life of Connor Biscan, the subject of “Raising Connor,” a boy struggling with autism and other issues. The photos and accompanying story, by Liz Kowalczyk, were published in the Globe last May.

• The late Aretha Franklin was awarded a Special Citation “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.” The prize was more than well-deserved, but it’s a shame that the Pulitzer board decided to wait until Franklin was no longer around to enjoy it. Quite simply, she was one of the greatest musicians of the past 75 years.

• I had already planned, with some trepidation, to take on David W. Blight’s monumental (912 pages) “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” So I was pleased to see that it won the Pulitzer for History.

• The full list of Pulitzers is deep and impressive, and I have left out more than I’ve included. Please take a look at the best in journalism and the arts in 2018.

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Jonathan Kaufman to lead Northeastern’s J-School

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Jonathan Kaufman

Today is an exciting day for Northeastern University’s School of Journalism: We are finally able to announce that our new director will be Jonathan Kaufman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the executive editor of Bloomberg News. Kaufman, who is also a veteran of The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal, will be joining us on July 13.

Laura Krantz of the Globe covers the story here.

Jonathan’s arrival means that my stint as interim director will soon be coming to an end. I’ve been serving in that role since last September, filling in for Steve Burgard, who was taking a sabbatical to work on a book project. My term was unexpectedly extended last October when Steve died after a brief illness.

It’s been an interesting and sometimes difficult year to say the least. But Jonathan will be a worthy successor to Steve. We are all expecting great things.

Below is the official announcement, which is also online.

BOSTON — Northeastern University’s School of Journalism today announced the appointment of veteran business journalist and Bloomberg News Executive Editor Jonathan Kaufman as the school’s new director. Kaufman will begin his new role at Northeastern on July 13.

“I am thrilled to be joining Northeastern to help shape the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and globally, expand new media and digital innovation, and reflect and speak out about the challenges and opportunities journalism faces in the 21st century,” said Kaufman. “Northeastern has blazed a trail with its blend of classroom and experiential learning. I look forward to working with the faculty and students in the exciting years ahead.”

As Bloomberg’s Executive Editor for Company News, Kaufman oversees more than 300 reporters and editors worldwide covering business, health, science, education and international news for Bloomberg News newswire, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Bloomberg.com. Under his leadership, Kaufman’s team at Bloomberg has won numerous awards, including a 2015 Pulitzer Prize, several George Polk Awards, an Overseas Press Club Award, a Gerald Loeb Award, and an Education Writers Association Grand Prize.

Before joining Bloomberg, Kaufman held various positions at The Wall Street Journal, most recently as Senior Editor. During his time as the Journal‘s China Bureau Chief, Kaufman led coverage of the country’s emergence as a global economic superpower, the SARS outbreak, and environmental and social issues. A graduate of Yale University (BA) and Harvard (MA), Kaufman began his journalism career at The Boston Globe in the early 1980s, where he won a Pulitzer Prize as part of a team examining racism and job discrimination in Boston. He is the author of two books, “A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe” and “Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America.”

“Jonathan is a gifted journalist and an acknowledged leader in his field,” said Bruce Ronkin, Interim Dean in the College of Arts, Media and Design, which houses the School of Journalism. “He brings decades of experience across traditional and digital media to Northeastern, along with deep knowledge of the business sector and a global worldview. He is a perfect fit for our school and the university.”

At the helm of the School of Journalism, Kaufman will lead an accomplished team of faculty, oversee the school’s undergraduate program serving 225 students, and continue to grow graduate programs in professional journalism and media innovation. He succeeds Associate Professor Dan Kennedy, who is serving as the school’s interim director after long-time School of Journalism director Stephen Burgard passed away in 2014.

Obama’s State of the Union drives conservatives crazy

State Of The Union
President Obama delivering his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Photo (cc) by NASA HQ.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There’s plenty of fulminating in conservative media circles today over President Barack Obama’s unabashedly liberal State of the Union address.

Some of it is offered in world-weary tones suggesting that, once again, the grown-ups have to explain to the kids that the president doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Mr. Obama’s income-redistribution themes are familiar,” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “though they are amusingly detached from the reality of the largest GOP majority in Congress since 1949.”

Some of it is angry. “The president continues to count on and to exploit the ignorance of many of our fellow citizens,” thumps Scott Johnson of Power Line.

And some of it is just petulant. Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro concludes a long adolescent rant about Obama with this unmemorable line: “the state of his union sucks.”

Leave it to David Frum of The Atlantic, though, to explain what might have really been going on Tuesday night. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Frum is the closest thing we’ve got these days to a moderate Republican commentator. And he thinks Obama was aiming his proposals — tax hikes for the rich, tax cuts for the middle class and new governmental benefits such as free community college — at an audience of one: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“The intent, pretty obviously, is to box in his presumptive successor as head of the Democratic Party,” Frum writes. “Every time the president advances a concept that thrills his party’s liberal base, he creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton. Does she agree or not? Any time she is obliged to answer, her scope to define herself is constricted.”

The effect, Frum predicts, will be to push the pro-business Clinton to the left and thereby hand an opportunity to the Republican presidential aspirants.

Whatever Obama’s motivation, there’s no question that his demeanor was that of a conquering hero rather than a weakened president facing the first all-Republican Congress of his tenure.

“Obama delivered an hour-long defense of his policies that at times sounded like a victory lap,” is how David Nakamura puts it in his lead story for The Washington Post. In The New York Times, Michael D. Shear calls Obama “confident and at times cocky.” Matt Viser of The Boston Globe says the president was “confident, brash, and upbeat.”

If nothing else, Obama demonstrated that he understood the atmospherics of the State of the Union. It’s a TV show, with all the entertainment values that implies. And thus there was no need for him to acknowledge the Democrats’ brutal performance in the November elections, or that the proposals he offered Tuesday have no more chance of passing than, say, Canadian-style health care. He had the podium, and the Republicans could applaud or not.

The timing was right for Obama as well. With the economy finally showing real improvement, the president’s job-approval ratings are up a bit. An ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Obama at 50 percent approve/44 percent disapprove, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has him at 46 percent approve/48 percent disapprove. Meanwhile, the public detests Congress as much as ever.

As for how the State of the Union was received, that’s a little harder to figure out. The only survey I’ve seen, from CNN/ORC, shows that 51 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to Obama’s speech and 30 percent were “somewhat positive.” That’s sounds like a big thumbs-up until you look more closely at the numbers. It turns out that 39 percent of those surveyed were Democrats and just 20 percent were Republicans — a reflection of who watched the speech, not of public sentiment as a whole.

Another way of looking at that, though, is that Obama knew he was speaking to a friendly audience — not in Congress, but at home, as Democrats were far more likely to tune in than Republicans. So why not use the occasion to energize his supporters — and drive his enemies to distraction?

Obama’s detractors at Fox News were fairly restrained Tuesday night and online this morning. But you can be sure Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, et al. will be at it tonight. Meanwhile, consider this, from Charles Hurt of The Washington Times: “President Obama dedicated his State of the Union address to illegal aliens, college students and communist Cuba. In other words, all those imaginary supporters he claims to be hearing from ever since the actual American electorate denounced him, his party and his policies in last year’s beat-down election.”

More to the point, John Podhoretz writes in the New York Post that “in the most substantive speech he’s given in a long time, he has committed his presidency toward policies that have no hope of a serious hearing from the legislatures whose job it is to turn policies into law.”

Obama knows that, of course. The real message of the State of the Union was that the 2016 campaign has begun. Having long since concluded that the Republicans won’t compromise with him, the president delivered a political speech, aimed electing a Democratic president and Congress.

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