What the new owner of the Los Angeles Times can learn from Jeff Bezos

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) and Jeff Bezos in 2016. Photo from a Post video.

Last week a years-long ownership crisis at the Los Angeles Times may have come to an end. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur, purchased the Times from tronc for a reported $500 million.

Drawing on the lessons I write about in my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I e-talked with Dave Beard about what lessons Soon-Shiong could learn from Jeff Bezos’ vision for The Washington Post, and why other billionaire owners both good (John Henry of The Boston Globe) and bad (Sam Zell, who ran the former Tribune newspapers into the ground) have had a rougher go of it.

Our conversation is now up at Poynter.org, and I hope you’ll take a look.

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

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

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The timid Times: What’s wrong with political coverage at our leading newspaper

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I’ve been trying for a while to think through a column on what’s wrong with The New York Times’ political coverage. The topic is so broad that it defies easy analysis. The Times is too big and too good to disparage in categorical terms. For every example I could come up with of a story that should have been framed differently, a defender of the Times could point to several that were pitch perfect. And yet something is off. Sometimes it’s a matter of tone and emphasis. Sometimes it’s more serious.

A couple of years ago I made The Washington Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe. Partly it was because I was starting to research my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” much of which is about how the Post and the Globe have fared under the ownership of billionaires Jeff Bezos and John Henry. But partly it was because I simply found the Post more compelling than the Times.

I read the Post because of its fierce and authoritative coverage of national politics, especially of President Trump. It was, after all, the Post that broke the two most important Trump stories of the 2016 campaign: the fraudulent nature of his charitable foundation and the existence of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which he is heard crudely boasting about sexual assault. And it has continued. Without the Post’s reporting, a credibly accused child molester, Roy Moore, would be taking his place in the Senate this month.

When I make the Times my first read, it’s because the writing is better, it offers a broader range of topics, and it carries greater social currency. For all the Post’s success under Bezos and executive editor Marty Baron, it just hasn’t become part of the national conversation to the same extent as the Times. But there is a timidity to some of the Times’ political coverage — a deep institutional need to offer balance when the truth is overwhelmingly on one side, to cover Trump as though he is an undisciplined, falsehood-spewing, but essentially normal president.

In the Times, Trump’s awfulness is too often portrayed as a matter of degree rather than of evidence that our media and political system is fundamentally broken. The picture that emerges is of a news organization often out of sync with its mostly liberal audience and that is way too concerned about what conservatives might say. The media observer Jay Rosen recently criticized executive editor Dean Baquet’s quest for balance in his reporters’ use of social media. Although I largely agreed with Baquet’s order that straight-news reporters refrain from opinionated tweets, Rosen’s assessment of the Times’ and the Post’s use of social media spoke to deeper truths about both news organizations:

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence — in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Let me offer an example that gets at some of what I’m talking about: Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s remarkable interview with Trump last week at the president’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida. On the one hand, their conversation produced all sorts of news, the most important of which was Trump’s apparent signal that he would not fire special counsel Robert Mueller (but who knows?). On the other hand, the interview was an exercise in pure access journalism at a paper that has come to overvalue access (see: Maggie Haberman). Schmidt contented himself with asking questions and recording Trump’s answers rather than challenging his numerous falsehoods. It certainly didn’t help that Schmidt, with Emily Cochrane, followed up with a story on Trump’s New Year’s Eve gala at Mar-a-Lago that read like a fanzine report on who was wearing what at the Oscars.

Schmidt’s passivity in his interview with Trump sparked outrage among liberals on Twitter, and Schmidt defended himself in a separate article. “I believed it was more important to continue to allow the president to speak and let people make their own judgments about his statements,” he wrote. As for the falsehoods, the Times dealt with those in yet another story. Personally, I thought Schmidt’s interview with Trump was valuable. Access journalism has its uses as long as it is supplemented with investigative reporting, and there has been no shortage of that in the Times. Yet it’s hard to forget that Schmidt was the lead reporter on a story in July 2015 that falsely claimed Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for her use of a private email server, leading to two corrections, an editor’s note, and a tough column by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at The Washington Post. Then again, the Times’ quarter-century obsession with mostly nonexistent wrongdoing by the Clintons is worthy of a separate column — or a book.

Even great journalism by the Times calls to mind past problems. On Saturday the paper published a devastating report that the FBI began its Russia inquiry in July 2016 after a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, drunkenly bragged to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had “political dirt” on Clinton. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple noted, the Times had dismissed the idea that the FBI was investigating Trump just days before the 2016 election. Granted, there was much that was unknown then. But Wemple argued that the earlier story drew “relatively sweeping conclusions” about the FBI’s alleged non-involvement when a more open-ended approach was called for. Sullivan’s successor as public editor, Liz Spayd, followed up with a highly critical column that reportedly enraged Baquet. The public editor’s position was later eliminated.

On New Year’s Day the Times’ new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, greeted his audience with a message paying tribute to his family’s heritage dating back to Adolph Ochs, who bought the paper in 1896. Sulzberger said all the right things, including this:

The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

This is a restatement of New York Times journalism at its best: truth over balance, independence over access, courage over fear of criticism. Even now, these values characterize much of what the Times publishes. But the lapses are frustrating and unnecessary.

I don’t mean to make too much of the Times’ shortcomings. If there’s a smoking gun with regard to Trump and the Russia investigation, I think the “failing New York Times” is as likely to expose it as the “Amazon Washington Post.” Both are indispensable news organizations and both are producing great work. But journalists at the Post give the impression of knowing who they are, why they’re here, and what they’re doing. I wish I could say the same about the Times — and I hope the day will come when I can.

Friday updates

1. Shortly after my column was published, Washington Post media columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan weighed in with some similar observations. In her case as well as mine, the trigger was Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s recent interview with President Trump in which Schmidt was content to take dictation rather than challenge Trump over any of the numerous falsehoods that came tumbling out of his mouth. I particularly liked this Sullivan soundbite:

The Times is distinctively defensive. Often great and sometimes wrong, it mostly likes to talk about that first part, and has trouble acknowledging the second, which may be one reason its public-editor position lasted less than 14 years.

Like me, Sullivan was impressed with new publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s introductory message. I hope Sulzberger translates his rhetoric into action.

2. Give Schmidt his due. On Thursday the Times published his latest, which may prove to be among the most significant of the Russia investigation: a report that Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn to order Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the government’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Sessions, who really had no choice, recused himself anyway. The story is full of choice details, such as Trump angrily asking “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” and an underling’s trying to mislead Trump into believing that he did not have the authority to fire FBI director James Comey. As Blake Hounshell, editor-in-chief of Politico Magazine, put it:

3. Good Times, bad Times. A story about Steve Bannon’s swift fall after he got caught telling Michael Wolff what he really thinks about the Trumps mentions a project co-founded by Bannon called the Government Accountability Institute. Among other things, the institute published a 2015 book called “Clinton Cash,” which the Times describes as having “damaged Hillary Clinton’s then-nascent presidential campaign.” The book was written by Peter Schweizer, who also writes for Breitbart News. What the Times does not mention is that is that both the Times and the Post partnered with Bannon’s institute in obtaining early access to the book, described as riddled with errors by the liberal advocacy group ThinkProgress. Aaron Rupar of ThinkProgress wrote shortly after the 2016 election:

Instead of fact-checking, the Times and Post ignored Clinton Cash’s errors Schweizer’s history of inaccuracy and amplified the book’s anti-Clinton innuendos — material Trump himself used to attack Hillary, win the presidency, and empower white nationalists like Bannon. Now, in the wake of a campaign where fake news outperformed legitimate reporting, the country’s two largest papers are left penning editorials condemning Trump for elevating a man whose flawed work they amplified.

Rupar did not claim that the Times or the Post passed along any false information from Schweizer’s book. Nevertheless, if the Times is going to bring up “Clinton Cash” in a story about Bannon, it ought to mention its own involvement.

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Tuesday’s election results were a triumph for journalism

Doug Jones’ victory in Tuesday’s Alabama Senate race underscores the crucial role that journalism plays in our public discourse.

If The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites hadn’t interviewed courageous women and exposed Roy Moore as a likely pedophile, the outcome of the election could have been very different. And if the Post hadn’t turned the tables on Project Veritas when it attempted a sting to discredit its reporting, the consequences for journalism would have been catastrophic.

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Trumping his measured rhetoric, president goes off at the United Nations

The morning print headlines:

  • “Muted Trump Embraces U.N. Before Speech” (New York Times)
  • “Trump plans pragmatic U.N. speech” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump shifts global tone, engagement” (Boston Globe)

The afternoon web headlines:

  • “At U.N., Trump Threatens to ‘Totally Destroy North Korea’” (New York Times)

  • “Trump threatens to ‘destroy North Korea,’ calls Kim ‘Rocket Man’” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea in UN speech” (Boston Globe)

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Once again, the Times bends over backwards for Trump while the Post lets him have it

It seems that every day The New York Times finds a way to say something hopeful about President Trump while The Washington Post sticks with reality as we can all see it. There are many examples I could dredge up, but let’s start with today’s papers. First the Times’ Glenn Thrush:

Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.

Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.

Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.

Now the Post’s Jenna Johnson:

Even in visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas, Trump keeps the focus on himself

As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special…. What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

As I said, these contrasts are a regular occurrence. I don’t know what to attribute them to, but I wonder if the Times’ bend-over-backwards approach to Trump is the flip side of its decades-long obsession with Clinton non-scandals, from Whitewater to emails. Yes, the Times has done plenty of great investigative reporting on Trump, and it seems to be locked in a steel-cage death match with the Post to see which paper can dig up the most dirt on him. But then there are these weird tonal lapses.

The Times and the Post are great papers. The Times features better writing and has a much broader mandate. But the Post’s fierce coverage of national politics and its unapologetic attitude toward Trump have long since made the Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe.

Update. From my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder:

I’m sure that has something to do with it. Yet Trump has been known to pick up the phone and call Post reporters, too. There’s no question that the Times is the paper Trump, a New Yorker, most cares about. I don’t know how much of a factor that is.

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Obama’s choices: Making sense of The Washington Post’s big exclusive

Earlier today I did some tweeting on the bad choices that then-president Barack Obama faced over Russian meddling in the election — the major theme of The Washington Post’s astonishing exclusive. I’ve pulled my tweets into what Twitter calls a Moment. Please have a look.

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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.

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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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