Fahrenthold and journalism’s limits; the power of local; and the Globe’s near-winners

Few reporters have ever had the kind of year that David Fahrenthold experienced in 2016. From exposing the Trump Foundation’s bogus and illegal practices to unearthing a tape on which then-candidate Donald Trump could be heard crudely boasting about sexual assault, Fahrenthold single-handedly defined large swaths of the presidential campaign.

Fahrenthold, a Washington Post reporter, was recognized for his efforts Monday with a Pulitzer Prize, which was surely among the least surprising Pulitzers in history. It represented the third year in a row that the Post had won in the National Reporting category, but the first time in 24 years that a Pulitzer had been awarded for covering a presidential campaign.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Yes, Sen. Grassley, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the fate of Medicare

Keep your eyes open, journalists. Connect the dots. Sometimes it’s as easy as reading two stories in the same day’s newspaper — in this case, The Washington Post. A story on Republican efforts to come up with a repeal-and-replace plan for the Affordable Care Act includes this:

Some congressional Republicans have been more vocal in recent days about concerns that they are hearing from constituents on what comes after the law is repealed. Several also suggested that Democrats are deliberately spreading misinformation.

“I think you hear from two categories,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). “One are people that think Medicare is going to be affected, and obviously we haven’t made very clear that there’s absolutely no connection with Medicare. And the other one is dealing with the people they think are going to lose their insurance as soon as we … repeal.”

Those dastardly lying Democrats! But wait. Elsewhere in the Post, we learn that Tom Price, who is Donald Trump’s choice to be the next secretary of health and human services, is in fact a sworn enemy of Medicare:

Starting early in his tenure on Capitol Hill, Price wrote a series of commentaries lambasting the popular Medicare program and exhorting changes along more conservative lines. “Its flawed structure increasingly fails our seniors on all counts — responsiveness, innovation, access, cost and quality,” he wrote in 2008 in the Washington Times. He has repeatedly introduced legislation that would have converted Medicare from the entitlement program it has been since its origins in the 1960s to a system of “defined contribution,” with the government giving older Americans fixed sums to help them purchase private health plans.

For what it’s worth, the bylines of Post reporters Julie Eilperin and Amy Goldstein appear on both stories.

And let’s not forget that House Speaker Paul Ryan spends most of his waking hours dreaming about doing away with Medicare.

I guess the most logical explanation for letting Grassley’s words stand without challenge  is that destroying Obamacare will not destroy Medicare. Instead, it will require a separate vote.

Questions remain about the Washington Post’s reporting on the Vermont electrical grid

The Washington Post appears to have overreached significantly in its report last Friday that Russian hackers had penetrated Vermont’s electrical grid. Later that evening it was revealed that malware associated with the Russians was found on just one Burlington Electric laptop that was not attached to the grid. On Monday evening the Post published an updated story reporting that even that was an overstatement.

Although we don’t know yet exactly what went wrong, Kalev Leetaru’s analysis at Forbes, much of it based on looking at how the story changed over time, strikes me as very good. Leetaru writes that it appears the Post did not try to contact Burlington Electric until after the first version of its story had been published online—an important oversight if true. Certainly there was no indication in the Post’s first story that its reporters had attempted to contact the utility.

Yet I want to push back a bit on the idea that no one except the Post had reason to believe there was anything to this story. At Vermont Public Radio, you’ll find an article published on Friday, after the Post, that includes this statement from Burlington Electric spokesman Mike Kanarick:

Last night, U.S. utilities were alerted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of a malware code used in Grizzly Steppe, the name DHS has applied to a Russian campaign linked to recent hacks. We acted quickly to scan all computers in our system for the malware signature. We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to our organization’s grid systems. We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding. Our team is working with federal officials to trace this malware and prevent any other attempts to infiltrate utility systems. We have briefed state officials and will support the investigation fully.

In other words, government officials and Burlington Electric were taking this very seriously indeed—even if the Post had incorrectly reported that the grid had been breached. Yes, of course, the Post should have been more careful. But we’re in the midst of a much larger, unfolding saga of Russian hacking. Perhaps it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath.

Update: Taylor Dobbs of Vermont Public Radio, a distinguished Northeastern journalism alumnus, has an excellent follow-up. Unfortunately it’s still not entirely clear whether the Post attempted to contact Burlington Electric before publishing. Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti says yes; the utility’s general manager, Neale Lunderville, says no.

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Talking with Bob Schieffer about the future of news

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Recently I had the opportunity to record a podcast about my Shorenstein paper on the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos with CBS News legend Bob Schieffer and Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Our conversation was posted on Thursday.

Schieffer and I met last spring at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I was a Joan Shorenstein Fellow and he was the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow. Schieffer was a friendly, gregarious presence, and my fellow fellows and I enjoyed his company immensely.

My Shorenstein paper is part of a book project with a working title of The Return of the Moguls, which will be about the Post under Bezos, the Boston Globe under Red Sox principal owner John Henry, and the Orange County Register under entrepreneur Aaron Kushner, to be published by ForeEdge in 2017.

Schieffer and Schwartz’s podcast, “About the News,” offers regular updates about various media topics. It’s available at iTunes.

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When ‘poorly’ and ‘well’ mean exactly the same thing

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-8-08-28-amscreen-shot-2016-09-12-at-8-08-43-amThe top headline is from the home page of the Washington Post‘s “classic” app earlier today. The bottom headline appears atop the actual story.

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The Times’s weirdly Putin-free first take on the NBC forum

Illustration (cc) by Michail Kirkov.
Illustration (cc) by Michail Kirkov.

Here we go again. A week after the New York Times completely rewrote a story that initially portrayed Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico and subsequent hate-rally speech on immigration as a turn toward a softer, more statesmanlike candidate, the paper’s lead story omitted the biggest news coming out of Wednesday night’s NBC News “Commander-in-Chief” forum.

The story, like last week’s, was by Patrick Healy. And it contained not a single mention of Vladimir Putin, whom Trump praised fulsomely—even suggesting that he was a more impressive leader than President Obama. Here is the original article, posted on Wednesday night.

By this morning, Healy’s story had been updated to include a mention of Putin—in the fifth paragraph. Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s three-reporter effort led with this:

Donald Trump defended his admiration for Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at a forum here Wednesday focused on national security issues, even suggesting that Putin is more worthy of his praise than President Obama.

That’s known as finding the lede and running with it. (Although I didn’t save the Post‘s first take on Wednesday night, I know it mentioned Putin prominently.) By the way, the Post also led the print edition with that story, under the headline “Trump Defends Praise for Putin.” The Times: “Candidates Flex Muscles During TV Forum.”

The forum itself was inexpertly moderated by Matt Lauer, who grilled Hillary Clinton with predictable questions about her damn emails while repeatedly letting Trump off the hook. Clinton, speaking first, pointed out that Trump has lied repeatedly about his initial support for the war in Iraq. Good thing—because when Trump lied again, Lauer sat there and said nothing.

As Dylan Byers writes at CNN.com:

Perhaps most notable were the questions Lauer did not ask of Trump. At an event geared toward national security and military veterans, the NBC co-host failed to ask a single question about Trump’s controversial remarks about Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Sen. John McCain’s prisoner-of-war status or his deferments from the Vietnam War, among other issues.

All of this comes, of course, as a host of media and political observers are beginning to take loud notice—see my commentary earlier this week for WGBHNews.org—that the political press is pummeling Clinton while holding Trump to a much lower standard.

By the way (to return to the beginning), Times public editor Liz Splayd explained her paper’s Mexican misadventure by saying that Healy got caught up with deadline problems—the tone of the day changed significantly once Trump begin his ugly speech in Phoenix. OK. But again, the Post set the right tone in its very first take. It’s fair to ask what is going on at the Times.

Update: To be fair, a sidebar in the Times published Wednesday night made mention of Putin. And I’m told by Harvard’s Christina Pazzanese, though I didn’t see it, that Times reporter Alexander Burns had an even earlier take than Healy’s that did mention Putin. But my point stands. Anyone checking the Times‘s website or apps late Wednesday night would have seen Healy’s story as the big takeout—and there was no mention of Putin.

Update II: The Burns story has been disappeared from the Times website, but Susan Ryan-Vollmar found this.

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How unbalanced media debates enabled Trump’s rise

Donald Trump, large and in charge. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.
Donald Trump, large and in charge. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

Last week the editors of the Washington Post‘s blog In Theory asked me to contribute to a series of posts on the media’s culpability in the rise of Donald Trump. Mine was just published. Later in the week we’ll hear from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, Post media blogger Erik Wemple, and In Theory editor Christine Emba. The top of my piece follows.

What could be more open and democratic than a debate? For all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth now taking place over the massive amounts of free media bestowed upon Donald Trump, it was his dominating performance in the televised debates that allowed him to separate himself from the pack.

Yet the debates themselves were an exercise in faux democracy. What really mattered, especially early on, was who got invited, who got to stand where and who was allowed to speak the most. Unfortunately, the media organizations that ran the debates (along with the Republican National Committee) relied on polls to make those decisions right from the very first encounter in August.

Read the rest in the Washington Post.