Why the press embraces false equivalence — and why it needs to stop

The press on a bad day. Photo (cc) 2003 by James Good.

The Democrats are moving left. This is objectively true, but it also represents a challenge for those mainstream journalists whose equilibrium has been disrupted by the Republican lurch to the extreme right over the past several decades and, more recently, by the rise of Donald Trump.

The challenge can be described this way: Can the media report plainly on what the Democrats are up to without falling back onto false notions of balance? In other words, can they tell us how and why the Democrats are embracing increasingly progressive positions without resorting to the old nostrum that it’s just like the Republicans’ rightward march?

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

Advertisements

The rise and fall of Digital First; or, how to get rich plundering newspapers

The Nation recently published a splendid takedown of Randall Smith, a little-known Wall Street tycoon whose avarice has hollowed out daily newspapers from coast to coast. By “gutting” his papers, Julie Reynolds reports, Smith was able to amass the $57 million he needed to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline,” she writes. “Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”

The name of Smith’s newspaper empire is Digital First Media, an ironic moniker for an enterprise dedicated to the proposition that every last penny should be squeezed out of the shrinking print business. But the name isn’t just ironic — it’s also iconic. Although Reynolds doesn’t mention it in her story, it wasn’t that long ago that Digital First was created by a charismatic, foul-mouthed executive who was hailed as a possible savior of the news business.

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

The kids are all right: Why concerns about free speech on campus may be overblown

Demonstration at Berkeley Free Speech Week. Photo (cc) 2017 by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Do college students fear the First Amendment? You would think so, based on the results of a survey published last week by the Brookings Institution, which found that the nation’s campuses are a bastion of political correctness whose coddled denizens favor the warmth of safety and like-mindedness over the brisk waters of vigorous, uncomfortable debate.

But as someone who has been teaching college students for a dozen years, the results struck me as entirely at odds with what I hear from the smart, thoughtful young men and women I deal with every day. Last week I put that proposition to the test. I’ll get to that in a bit — but first some background.

The study was led by Brookings and UCLA scholar John Villasenor, who said he surveyed some 1,500 students in 49 states. Certainly if Villasenor’s findings are accurate, then there is plenty of cause for concern. Among other things, he found that a plurality of students (44 percent to 39 percent) wrongly believe that the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech; that 51 percent say it is acceptable for students to shout down a speaker “known for making offensive and hurtful statements”; and that 19 percent even think it’s all right to engage in “violence to prevent the speaker from speaking.” Villasenor wrote:

The survey results establish with data what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.

Villasenor’s work created something of a media sensation, playing as it did into stereotypes that today’s generation of students are delicate snowflakes who’d rather walk out on a speaker whose views they disagree with than listen to ideas that challenge their preconceived notions. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell put it this way: “Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants ‘safe spaces,’ or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech.”

And for a public saturated by media reports of campus intolerance directed at controversial right-wing speakers such as Ann Coulter and Milos Yiannopoulos, the findings seem like they must be true. Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined in the pile-on this week, telling an audience at Georgetown University that “freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack.” But if you’re looking to the Brookings survey for confirmation of such sentiments, you may find that you need to look elsewhere: the methodology is being seriously questioned.

Lois Beckett of The Guardian administered a thorough thrashing to Villasenor, quoting a polling expert that his results amounted to “malpractice” and “junk science” and that “it never should have appeared in the press.” Beckett’s most serious charge was that, rather than polling 1,500 randomly selected students, Villasenor relied on an opt-in online panel of respondents who said they were college students. In other words, the survey was not much different from being urged to visit a political website after a candidates’ debate and registering your opinion as to who won. “If it’s not a probability sample, it’s not a sample of anyone, it’s just 1,500 college students who happen to respond,” the polling expert, Cliff Zukin, told Beckett.

Some of Beckett’s complaints seem petty. For instance, she notes — as Villasenor acknowledges — that the study was funded by the libertarian Charles Koch Foundation. Frankly, though, a reputable organization like Brookings is accustomed to dealing with such funding issues, and it seems unlikely that the malign hand of the Koch brothers reached in to alter the results. (As you may know, David Koch’s service on the WGBH board was the source of some controversy several years ago. He is not currently a member.) Beckett also dismisses Villasenor on the grounds that he is an electrical engineer. But according to his Brookings biography, he appears to be something of a polymath whose academic interests include public policy and law. Still, Villasenor’s use of an opt-in questionnaire rather than a random survey calls his findings into question.

Last week I conducted my own non-scientific survey of the nearly 50 students who are enrolled in my introductory course at Northeastern University on journalism and the news media. About half are journalism majors; the rest are from across the university and are studying in fields such as business, computer science, and, yes, electrical engineering.

We went into some depth. I organized the class into five teams, each of which spent about 20 minutes wrestling with one of the five questions on Villasenor’s survey. That was followed by team presentations and, finally, a show of hands on the five questions.

Now, obviously, asking people to take a stand in full view of their peers is problematic, so I don’t want to make any great claims for the accuracy of my survey. But the findings matched the comments made during class discussion. And they were heartening. Thanks to one well-informed student, they all learned that hate speech is, in fact, protected by the First Amendment. What impressed me was that after hearing that, an overwhelming majority agreed that such speech should be protected.

Only a handful of students thought it was acceptable to shout down a speaker — and they made it clear that they believed as they did because protesters also have First Amendment rights. Not a single student came out in favor of violence. On the question of whether a university must balance controversial speakers with those of opposing views, the consensus was that such balance should emerge in the selection of speakers over time — not that every controversial speaker should be expected to debate an opponent. They also overwhelmingly agreed with the proposition that a university should foster an “open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints” (to use the survey’s wording) rather than create “a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints.”

Every year my friend and colleague Harvey Silverglate, a leading civil-liberties lawyer, writes a round-up of outrages against free speech at colleges and universities called the “Campus Muzzles.” Free speech is a real issue on many campuses, and I don’t want to assume that Northeastern is an exception.

Neither, though, am I worried about the future of political discourse as the next generation assumes positions of influence and power. The anti-First Amendment forces are a minority. Antifa is real but tiny. My experience is that most college students are smart, tolerant, and eager to hear all points of view — including those that clash with their own beliefs.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Questions remain as The Boston Globe tries to solve its epic printing woes

Photo by WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The big unanswered question about The Boston Globe’s printing woes is whether they are merely serious — that is, they remain an agonizing pit of misery for months to come but are ultimately fixable — or if, instead, they are so catastrophic that they will require publisher John Henry to get rid of his new used presses and start over.

No one other than a few insiders knows for sure. But the Globe took a good first step toward providing its increasingly disenchanted customers with some answers by publishing an in-depth story by staff reporter Mark Arsenault over the weekend on what we know, what we don’t know, and what we still need to find out.

It was about time. Before Arsenault’s story was posted on Saturday night, the Globe’s only published acknowledgment of the problem came in the form of a front-page note from Henry on Aug. 18 in which he wrote that the presses at the paper’s new Taunton printing facility “are operating too slowly and breaking too often.” He added: “We are embarrassed. We are sincerely sorry to all those affected.” He also said it was unlikely those problems would be resolved by Labor Day — an observation that proved to be prescient.

Arsenault did not address every aspect of what can now fairly be called a crisis. I would have liked to see him do some reporting on what by all accounts has been a terrible experience for customers trying to cancel their subscriptions for papers that often never show up. And though Arsenault reported union official Stephen Sullivan’s response to Globe president Vinay Mehra’s claim that the problems were due in part to employees who are “resistant to change” (Arsenault’s phrase, not Mehra’s), it struck me that the accusation deserved further exploration. I don’t think Mehra helped the situation by insulting the very front-line people who’ve been stuck trying to fix a mess created by the paper’s top executives — two of whom lost their jobs as a result.

Still, there was important information in Arsenault’s story, especially regarding a company in Lubbock, Texas, called West Texas Printing Center. The company reportedly installed a set-up similar to, though smaller than, the Globe’s, which led to a world of hurt before matters were finally brought under control. “First year, year-and-a-half, we struggled,” West Texas official Kristi Holt told Arsenault. “Finding the demons and eliminating the demons is a long, tedious process. I feel for y’all. I’ve been where you are.”

A year. A year and a half. Does the Globe really have that long to get it right? Probably not. The paper solved its previous self-created fiasco over home-delivery vendors in a few months, but it’s not likely the Globe’s customers can wait until 2019 for the current mess to be cleaned up. And let’s not forget that those customers include not just readers but other newspapers that have entrusted their printing to the Globe, including the Boston Herald, The New York Times, and USA Today.

Then there’s the nightmare scenario. Last week a 38-year Globe pressman, Phil McColgan, sent me an email outlining what he thought needed to be done. With his permission, I forwarded his message to my colleagues at “Beat the Press,” and it was featured in our report last Friday. “In my opinion unless Mr. Henry is willing to dig deep into his pockets and install the correct presses such as the Goss presses that are sitting idle in Boston [at the former Morrissey Boulevard headquarters] we are going to continue to struggle to make deadlines,” he wrote.

When you take the long view, the idea that a newspaper could be laid low by printing problems in 2017 seems ludicrous. The Globe is doing well on the internet front, having signed up more than 80,000 digital-only subscribers, more than any other regional newspaper. The Globe’s website could use some updating, and it’s long past time for the paper to offer a usable mobile app. But, overall, the paper has made decent progress in its quest to become a digital-first news organization.

The challenge is that print remains vital to the business of publishing a daily newspaper. The value of digital ads has cratered in recent years, largely because of Google’s automated auction system for allocating advertising to websites. Revenues from print advertising are a fraction of what they used to be — but they remain far greater than online income. Then, too, newspaper readers tend to be older, and they still like print. According to the Globe’s most recent year-old figures, paid print circulation was 143,000 on weekdays and 243,000 on Sundays.

Cynics sometimes observe that Henry got the Globe more or less for free: the value of the property underneath the paper’s former headquarters should offset the $70 million he paid in 2013. But Henry has invested significantly, even as he has made cuts in the newsroom in an effort to stay ahead of declining revenues. The Taunton plant cost Henry $75 million. It may cost him a lot more before this is over.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Globe editor McGrory addresses printing woes

The WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) program “Boston Public Radio” just aired an interview with Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory that was recorded earlier today. McGrory is a regular Wednesday guest on the show, hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. At the end of their half-hour conversation, McGrory briefly addressed the Globe’s problems at its Taunton printing facility.

“Look we’ve been on a difficult run over here,” McGrory said, adding that there have been good and bad nights. “It’s proven more difficult than we had anticipated,” he said, and the result was that the paper’s top executives had decided to make some changes in leadership. “Some very, very good high-quality people are no longer here at the Globe,” he said. McGrory was clearly referring to the departure of chief operating officer Sean Keohan and (so I hear) at least one other top executive as well. In addition, the Globe’s chief executive officer, Doug Franklin, left in July, although that was reportedly not related to the printing problems.

“We think we’re making progress,” McGrory said. “We’ve had some very good stretches, a week, two weeks at a time,” followed by “some significant setbacks.” One of those setbacks, he noted, affected this past Sunday’s Globe.

“Amid the progress there are setbacks, and it is really, really frustrating,” he said. “The overall trendlines are showing improvement,” he added, although those improvements need to be “faster and more consistent.”

Earlier

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eloquent, angry polemic on racism in the age of Trump

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo (cc) 2015 by Sean Carter Photography.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For liberals and progressives trying to make sense of President Trump’s victory last November, the role of race has posed something of a dilemma. On the one hand, Trump’s racist rhetoric clearly played into pre-existing resentments on the populist right, thus boosting turnout among his more deplorable (to coin a phrase) supporters. On the other hand, if an African-American could be elected president twice, how could a white woman have lost because of racial animosity?

The answer, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Trump — unlike all previous presidential candidates — campaigned specifically as the candidate of white identity politics. Unlike Barack Obama’s opponents, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump rallied supporters who believed that white people comprised an oppressed group under siege. Thus it was Hillary Clinton rather than Obama who reaped the whirlwind of white backlash. As Coates puts it: “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Coates carefully builds his case in an 8,200-word essay in The Atlantic titled “The First White President.” It is, in some respects, a companion piece to his 2012 article “Fear of a Black President,” in which he argued that Obama was not as effective on issues of race as he could have been because he dared not show any real emotion lest he frighten White America. Even so, Coates wrote, simply having a black president served to racialize virtually everything that Obama touched, including his embrace of a health-care plan that had previously been associated with Republicans. Glenn Beck went so far as to castigate Obamacare as “reparations” for slavery.

For a white liberal like myself who wants to believe that racism, though ever-present, is in long-term decline, Coates’ new essay makes for painful reading. Littered with the N-word and informed by historical fears about white slavery (too complex to get into here), the article makes a thorough and devastating case that Trump won because he was supported by an overwhelming majority of white people — and not just the white working class, but whites across the educational and economic spectrum. “Trump,” Coates writes, “assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.” Citing the magazine Mother Jones, Coates points out that if only white voters had been allowed to cast ballots, Trump would have won the Electoral College by a margin of 389 to 81.

Although Coates reserves his real outrage for Trump, he is not especially kind to Clinton or her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders. Coates criticizes Sanders for his naive view that economics are more important than race, answering Sanders’ assertion that not all Trump supporters are racist or homophobic with this: “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” As for Clinton, Coates credits her for acknowledging “the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.” But he attributes that mainly to her need to atone for her own and her husband’s rhetoric and policies, which, among other things, led to an increase in the incarceration rate.

With his long, deeply researched essays on race, politics, and history, as well as a well-regarded series of books (his Trump article is excerpted from his forthcoming “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”), Coates has established himself as a leading intellectual on American social culture. He is not admired in all circles, of course. Ben Shapiro, an anti-Trump conservative, wrote several years agoin Breitbart News (then in its pre-Trumpist phase) that Coates espouses a “nihilistic and counterfactual viewpoint” that “demonstrates the media’s obsession with racism as a point of American conflict — a conflict that must be kept fresh, an open wound, so as to maximize the power of the government.”

Far more sympathetic is the liberal journalist Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. But even he has reservations. Though Marshall agrees with the thrust of Coates’ argument regarding the continued centrality of race in politics and culture, he finds something tonally off about “The First White President” — namely, the conceit that Coates, and Coates alone, has identified race as the true reason that Trump prevailed in the 2016 election. “Coates’ piece is a great essay that brings together a wealth of data and characteristically penetrating analysis. I recommend it highly,” Marshall writes. “But I could not read it without thinking there are a lot of voices — hardly little heard or without megaphones — he’s simply not hearing.”

“The First White President” is an important piece of work that Democrats should examine carefully as they look ahead. White resentment is a powerful force. It’s been present in Republican politics for a long time, from Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” to George H.W. Bush’s infamous exploitation of a black criminal named Willie Horton. Now Trump has upped the ante considerably. How effectively Democrats will respond remains to be seen. But as Coates shows, anyone who thinks that the problem can be solved merely through efforts to win over the white working class is sadly mistaken.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

New Hampshire official in spotlight won a Muzzle Award earlier this year

Illustration by Emily Judem of WGBH News

New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner, who has refused calls to resign from President Trump’s bogus voter-fraud commission, won a New England Muzzle Award from WGBH News earlier this year. His dubious achievement: continuing to fight against the scourge of ballot selfies, a form of free expression that several federal courts have ruled is protected by the First Amendment.

Talk about this post on Facebook.