Beyond ‘Fear’: An ex-New York Times critic explains the cultural rot Trump exploits

We are in the midst of a book-inspired frenzy over Donald Trump’s the cruelty and mendacity. The legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s latest, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” has renewed our anguished questions over how this petulant, foul-mouthed racist could be elected president.

But though Woodward has described the what and the how of the Trump presidency, we must look elsewhere for the why. Trump did not spring out of nowhere; we had been slouching in his direction for a long time. As former president Barack Obama put it the other day: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.” But a symptom of what, exactly?

Attempting to give us some answers is Michiko Kakutani. Her new book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” provides some much-needed context to help us understand what happened to our democracy. The tools wielded by Kakutani, the former weekday book critic for The New York Times, are deep reading and cultural criticism. The result is not entirely satisfying. But she does offer some provocative observations the about social changes that made Trump not just possible, but inevitable.

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Judge extends censorship in plastic-handgun case

In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota that prior restraint — censorship — was permissible only to prevent serious breaches of national security, incitement to violence, and the publication of obscenity. It was Near to which the court looked in 1971 when it ruled that The New York Times and The Washington Post could resume publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

Yet the rise of new doomsday technologies has put a crimp in Near. The latest example: efforts by a radical activist named Cody Wilson to publish blueprints on the internet describing how to use a 3D printer to produce an untraceable plastic gun. As I wrote for WGBH News several weeks ago, the case, based in Washington State, was reminiscent of one involving a left-wing magazine called The Progressive, which in 1979 sought to publish an article describing how to build a hydrogen bomb. In both instances, judges temporarily banned publication. The Progressive eventually published its article, and yet somehow we’re all still here.

Unfortunately U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik is allowing the muzzling of Wilson to drag on, ruling on Monday that the temporary restraining order he had put in place on July 31 would not be lifted until the case has been resolved. According to The New York Times, Lasnik ruled that Wilson’s First Amendment rights “are dwarfed by the irreparable harms the states are likely to suffer if the existing restrictions are withdrawn and that, over all, the public interest strongly supports maintaining the status quo through the pendency of this litigation.”

And yet, the Times continues, the plans Wilson wants to publish are already leaking out here and there, thus showing the futility of censorship.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who joined the suit, is celebrating Judge Lasnik’s ruling. Healey, I should note, is a two-time winner of a New England Muzzle Award from WGBH News for her less-than-vigorous support of the First Amendment.

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Remembering John McCain: Barreling through S.C. on the Straight Talk Express

John McCain in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Photo © 2007 by River Bissonnette.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

We lost a great American on Saturday. Sen. John McCain was a complicated man, but his integrity, courage, and fundamental decency were beyond reproach. In February 2000, I covered the South Carolina showdown between McCain and George W. Bush for The Boston Phoenix. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Today, courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives, WGBH News republishes my story in full.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Straight Talk Express — a bus that’s expanded into a three-vehicle caravan since John McCain’s unexpectedly large victory in New Hampshire — has just pulled up in front of City Hall. A crowd of people has gathered, waiting expectantly for the candidate. Among them is Geno Church, a city employee who’s holding his 5-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, so she can get a closer look. She points to a huge sign on one of the buses that says “McCain” and asks, “Daddy, why does that sign say ‘Media’?”

Out of the mouths of babes and all that.

The McCain campaign is many things. An insurgent effort by an underfunded challenger against an establishment candidate — George W. Bush — who’s been anointed with more than $65 million in contributions. A crusade to clean up a hopelessly corrupt political system. A book tour to promote “Faith of My Fathers,” which, McCain jokingly but carefully notes at every stop, was published by Random House and is available from Amazon.com for $24.95. (It’s working: “Faith of My Fathers” was Amazon’s 36th hottest-selling book as of Tuesday.)

Above all else, though, the McCain campaign is a media moment. The press has fallen hard for McCain, harder than it fell for Bill Clinton in 1992, harder than it fell for Gary Hart in 1984 or George McGovern in 1972. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, it’s clear that the reporters believe they’re in the midst of something historic — something akin, perhaps, to the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, the last time a war hero with a sense of humor and a proclivity for mixing it up with the press ran for president.

“It’s kind of a running dialogue that goes on on the McCain bus. The extraordinary thing about the McCain campaign is that everything is on the record. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says veteran Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie — one of the characters who pops up in Timothy Crouse’s classic on the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus” — calls McCain’s dealings with the media something of a “throwback” to the days when “you didn’t have nearly as many press people running around, and in general the candidates were more accessible.” And for the press, there is no higher value than accessibility.

It’s not that the press is consciously in the tank for McCain, or that he escapes all critical scrutiny. The beat reporters say they’re careful not to let their easy access to the candidate twist their coverage. But the cumulative effect of McCain’s blunt candor, his nonstop, on-the-record chatter, his sense of brio and his insouciance, has been to create an aura of goodwill in which the candidate — unlike perhaps any other national politician — automatically receives the benefit of the doubt.

Collectively — with, of course, certain exceptions (Time magazine broke from the pack last week with excellent pieces on McCain’s ultraconservative ideology and lack of a substantive agenda beyond campaign-finance reform) — the media have concluded that McCain is capable of transcending his unremarkable career in the Senate, his run-of-the-mill influence-peddling, and his doctrinaire conservatism to reform a political system that has grown hopelessly corrupt and out of touch with average Americans. Are they right? Continue reading “Remembering John McCain: Barreling through S.C. on the Straight Talk Express”

Giuliani’s ‘truth isn’t truth’ gaffe was a howler. But it was also taken out of context.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.

As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

Todd: “Truth is truth.”

Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”

Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”

Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.

Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.

“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.

On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.

For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.

But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.

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Why the Globe is leading a nationwide push to counter Trump’s anti-press rhetoric

Pro-Trump rally in Washington. Photo (cc) 2017 by Ted Eytan.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org

Consider the humble newspaper editorial. Unsigned and often unread, these gray exercises in cautious chin-stroking — representing as they do the theoretically awesome power of the institution — assert, applaud, deplore, and urge. But only rarely do they leap off the screen or page and grab the reader by the throat.

For the past several years, though, The Boston Globe’s opinionators have been trying desperately to break free from that swirling vortex of irrelevance. A satirical front page imagining a Trump presidency drew applause, moans, and brickbats. More successfully, the paper published several digital editorials about gun violence that incorporated interactive data presentations and online tools for contacting elected officials. (Here’s the most recent example.)

Now the Globe has embarked on its most audacious campaign yet: a call for newspapers across the country to publish editorials this Thursday condemning President Trump’s repeated assertions that journalists are “the enemy of the American people” and purveyors of “fake news,” an outrageous tactic that has led to threats against reporters at Trump rallies. More than 200 papers have signed on so far. “This dirty war on the free press must end,” the Globe said in announcing the coordinated effort, which you can follow on Twitter at #EnemyOfNone.

The idea originated with Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy editorial-page editor. She told me by email that she brought it up at a meeting of the editorial board (journalists who work for the opinion section) and got the go-ahead to begin contacting the editorial boards of other newspapers. Given the difficulty of changing anyone’s minds in this era of hyperpolarization, I asked her whether she thought the effort could truly make a difference. She took the optimistic view.

“This effort is an attempt to break through sides and remind everyone of the importance of a free press, no matter what their political preference is,” she said. “A free and independent press is one of the most sacred principles enshrined in the Constitution. It must remain so.”

The newspapers taking part will each write and publish their own editorials. “The impact of Trump’s assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston,” Pritchard wrote in announcing the campaign. “Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.” That should at least partly counter any claims made by Trump supporters that the mainstream media are marching in lockstep with the Resistance to drive the president out of the White House. Still, there is a certain predictability regarding who’s for it and who’s against it.

In addition to the 200-plus newspapers that have responded to the Globe’s call, organizations such as the New England Newspaper and Press Association and the American Society of News Editors are lending their support. Last Friday on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” Tom Fiedler, the dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, gave the idea a hearty “rave.” For press advocates, the campaign is an opportunity to stand up for First Amendment values in the face of president who seeks to delegitimize journalism in the eyes of his followers.

But Trump-supporting media outlets have mocked the effort as the usual drivel from the usual suspects. “This is just another day at the office,” wrote Karen Townsend at Hot Air. “The press has never supported President Trump and both print and television network coverage has been grossly skewered [sic] negatively against him.” Over at Breitbart, John Nolte called the Globe a “far-left” outlet and, not surprisingly, turned the very fact that newspapers are working together on its head. “The bottom line,” Nolte said, “is that this coordinated attack coming from all corners of the establishment media only serves to validate the criticism coming from Trump and other media critics.”

In a sense, the effort is a perfect illustration of the dilemma facing the press right now. On the one hand, mainstream news organizations are attracting more subscriptions, donations, and readers. On the other hand, that increased interest is almost entirely restricted to opponents of Trump, as his supporters have gravitated to their own media ecosystem dominated by Fox News and Breitbart.

As someone who has written my share of unsigned editorials over the years, I doubt that more than a handful of hearts and minds are going to be changed on Thursday. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Journalism is under siege. Last week, incredibly, a new poll showed that 43 percent of Republicans believe the president should have the authority to shut down “news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”

It’s time for us to stand up for our values and to remind the public of what the First Amendment is all about. What we’re not: perfect. What we are: an independent monitor of power, the absence of which would make this fraught moment infinitely worse.

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Plastic guns, nuclear bombs and the endless debate over free speech and public safety

Photo via Wikipedia.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Should a radical activist be allowed to publish instructions for using a 3D printer to create a fully operational plastic handgun? That’s the question facing U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik, who has said he will hear arguments this Friday in a case that pits freedom of speech against public safety.

The activist, Cody Wilson, has been trying to upload those plans for five years but had been prevented from doing so by the federal government. He nearly succeeded last month, after the State Department withdrew its objections. But Lasnik issued a temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by eight states and the District of Columbia. Although Lasnik, who’s based in Seattle, acknowledged that the case presented “serious First Amendment issues,” he said there was “a likelihood of irreparable harm” if Wilson — described as a “techno-anarchist” in a 2015 Wired magazine profile — had been allowed to move ahead.

If Wilson wins, it is easy to conjure up the evils that might result: an endless supply of untraceable guns that could be smuggled past metal detectors at airports and elsewhere and that could be printed out by thrill-seeking adolescents once 3D technology becomes sufficiently cheap and reliable. But as an equally fraught case from a generation ago demonstrates, the concerns raised by dilemmas like these invariably prove to be overblown.

In 1979, The Progressive, a small left-wing magazine based in Madison, Wisconsin, sought to publish an article on how to build a hydrogen bomb. The magazine claimed that Howard Morland, an Air Force pilot-turned-freelancer writer, had obtained the information entirely from public sources. The government argued that some of the information Morland used wasn’t publicly available, and that in any case he had pulled the information together in such a way that it could accelerate the process of rogue nations acquiring nuclear weapons.

Publishing instructions on how to build a nuke might not seem strictly necessary. But The Progressive’s editor, Erwin Knoll, defended his motives. In an essay he wrote when Morland’s article was finally published, he said the article was meant to spark debate. “We hope that debate will be a beginning — a beginning of a process in which all of the nuclear policies pursued by our Government will be held up to public scrutiny and review,” he wrote. “We hope that the process will end in a reversal of those policies and an end to the suicidal nuclear arms race in which we have been unwitting, uninformed participants.”

Like Judge Laskin in the plastic-handgun case, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Warren issued a temporary restraining order against The Progressive, arguing that the harm caused by censorship paled in comparison to the prospect of nuclear war. “A mistake in ruling against The Progressive will seriously infringe cherished First Amendment rights,” Warren wrote. But, he added portentously, “A mistake in ruling against the United States could pave the way for thermonuclear annihilation for us all. In that event, our right to life is extinguished and the right to publish becomes moot.”

In arriving at his decision, Warren relied on two Supreme Court precedents. In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the court identified a few narrow exceptions to the First Amendment prohibition on censorship — including a serious breach of national security, which Warren applied to the Morland article. In New York Times v. United States (1971), the court ruled that the Times and The Washington Post could publish the Pentagon Papers, the federal government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which would seem to cut against the government’s case regarding The Progressive. Warren, though, decided that the Pentagon Papers involved historical material rather than the possibility of future harm, and that The Progressive was also seeking to violate a specific federal law prohibiting the publication of atomic secrets.

Judge Warren was well aware of his responsibility as a guardian of the First Amendment, and he urged the two parties to come up with a voluntary agreement that would have allowed The Progressive to publish while omitting the most incendiary material. Before he could issue a final ruling, though, the matter was rendered moot when a newspaper in Madison published a letter containing substantially the same information as the Morland article. The case was dropped, and The Progressive published the Morland article under the headline “The H‐bomb secret: How we got it — why we’re telling it.”

The government’s and Judge Warren’s concerns proved to be unfounded. The information revealed by The Progressive has never been traced to the development of a nuclear weapon, even though terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS would love nothing better than to develop their own nukes. Building nuclear weapons involves a lot more than reading an article about it.

The threat posed by Cody Wilson’s plastic-handgun instructions is less existential but also more immediate. Though buying guns illegally (or stealing them) is easier than printing them out today, that is likely to change over the next few years. But the way to ensure public safety without violating the First Amendment is to outlaw activity, not speech. Plastic handguns are illegal unless they contain metal components. Guns without serial numbers are illegal.

“The distinction between regulating information about guns and regulating a tool that would automatically allow someone to manufacture a gun matters,” writes Boston University law professor Andrew Sellars at Slate. Echoing Erwin Knoll’s earlier argument, Sellars adds: “We protect speech so strongly under the First Amendment in part because we want to ensure unfettered discussion of policy matters.”

By temporarily preventing Wilson from publishing his blueprints, Judge Lasnik has already violated Wilson’s — and our — First Amendment rights. Let’s hope that on further reflection he comes to understand that when we try to ensure safety by suppressing free speech, we end up with neither.

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Media roundup: Sulzberger sends a message; tech and layoffs; and the return of Woodward and Bernstein

The patriarch: Adolph Ochs

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A.G. Sulzberger passed the audition.

Two Fridays ago the 37-year-old New York Times publisher met with President Trump at the White House for what he thought was an off-the-record discussion. Trump, as is his wont, later tweeted out his own dubious version of what had happened. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,’” the president wrote. “Sad!”

Which created a dilemma for Sulzberger. Should he act as though their off-the-record agreement was still in effect? Or should he push back at what he regarded as the president’s false characterization of their conversation? He chose the latter.

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said in a statement he issued this past Sunday, which the Times itself reported on. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Sulzberger’s reaction set exactly the right tone. By disclosing what he had said but not what Trump had said, he took the high road. But the Times also reported that Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet, who was also at the meeting, took “extensive notes” — a clear warning to Trump in the event that he decides to extend his Twitter war with the paper.

Sulzberger became publisher on Jan. 1. He was the latest member of Sulzberger-Ochs family to ascend to the top of the masthead, an unbroken chain that extends back to Adolph Ochs’ purchase of the Times in 1896. His father and predecessor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., presided over the paper to mixed reviews. As Ken Auletta put it in a tough New Yorker profile in 2005, “Although he occupies perhaps the most august position in the nation’s press establishment, he seems to lack the weighty seriousness of his predecessors.”

A.G., by contrast, has struck observers as both serious and wise beyond his years. “The publisher of the Times sits in direct contrast to the president of the United States: demure, private, vegetarian, self-effacing, and reliant on proving himself through hard work rather than trading on his famous surname,” according to The Washington Post.

The lead author of the Times’ celebrated 2014 innovation report, A.G. is perhaps the ideal publisher to continue the paper’s metamorphosis into a primarily digital news organization. And unlike virtually all of his predecessors, he has a significant background in journalism, having worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal, The Oregonian, and the Times itself.

The Times is far from perfect. Though its coverage of the Trump White House has been admirably tough, the paper still lapses — as I wrote last January — into episodes of normalizing this abnormal president and of succumbing too readily to the temptations of access journalism. For instance, a substance-free story about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that appeared over the weekend was widely derided, with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen writing that “it feels like a report smuggled out of the summer castle after the ladies in waiting started talking.”

But the continued health of the Times is crucial to democracy. So far, A.G. Sulzberger seems like the right person at the right time to stand up to the Trump White House as well as for journalistic values.

Squint really hard and you can almost see a silver lining

A report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center documents the horrifying drop in newsroom employment over the past 10 years, with newspapers having by far the worst of it. The number of full-time newspaper journalists fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017, a decline of 45 percent. A modest increase in the number of journalists at digital-only outlets did not come close to making up the difference.

I’m not going to try to sugarcoat what’s happening. And we should always keep in mind that greedy corporate owners like Digital First and tronc are at least as responsible for the drop as the collapse of newspaper advertising. But I do want to offer a small countervailing data point: Because of technology, reporters today are far more efficient and can produce more useful work in the same amount of time than was previously possible.

A couple of examples from my own career will suffice. When I was a community newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I had to drive to Beacon Hill for campaign-finance reports. Once I had them, my options were to take notes by hand or, if I had enough quarters, make copies, assuming the copy machine was working. (And imagine if you worked in Western Massachusetts rather than 12 miles from Boston, as I did.) Now you can just look them up. Later, as the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix, I once spent an entire afternoon searching through unindexed microfilm for a half-remembered article that I wanted to write about. Today, I would have it in a few minutes.

Again, I’m not trying to argue that the collapse of newsrooms doesn’t matter. It matters a lot, and of course there’s no substitute for having actual human beings to sit through municipal meetings and develop sources. What I am saying is that the effects of this collapse would be even worse without the digital tools that have become available over the past 20 years.

Woodward and Bernstein back on the beat

How cosmically appropriate is it that just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and related issues nears its conclusion (or not), the two legendary Washington Post reporters who did more than anyone to bring down the Nixon presidency are back on the beat?

Carl Bernstein was one of three CNN reporters whose byline appeared on a devastating report that, according to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the then-candidate knew in advance about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower at which Russians had promised to reveal “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And this week we learned that Bob Woodward is wrapping up a book called “Fear: Trump in the White House,” scheduled to be released on Sept. 11.

As I always tell my students: Everything — everything — can be traced back to Richard Nixon.

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Despite ongoing losses, John Henry insists that The Boston Globe is not for sale

Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

John Henry isn’t selling.

Nearly five years after the billionaire financier announced that he would buy The Boston Globe, there’s a low but persistent buzz within the city’s media and political circles that Henry is tired of losing money and looking to get out. But Henry, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, insists there’s nothing to it.

“I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime,” Henry said in an email interview. “Linda and I love and are committed to this city.”

Henry holds the title of Globe publisher. His wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, is the managing director and, even more than her husband, is a regular presence at the Globe’s offices.

Henry responded to a range of questions I recently emailed to him. He declined to offer answers on two issues: whether he thought columnist Kevin Cullen could regain the trust of his readers after he returns from a three-month suspension for ethics violations; and how he plans to handle former Boston.com editor and reporter Hilary Sargent’s claims that she was sexually harassed by Globe editor Brian McGrory — claims that she has continued to assert even after the Globe’s recent announcement that investigators had interviewed Sargent and cleared McGrory. Henry did offer praise for McGrory’s performance as editor, saying, “Brian has done a terrific job of early on moving us primarily into local reporting and over the past year or so has really moved us to more and more relevant, interesting and compelling stories across New England. Every day there are ‘can’t miss’ stories.”

As is the case with many daily newspapers, the Globe has staked its future on its ability to sell digital subscriptions. The Globe missed its target of signing up 100,000 digital-only subscribers by the end of June — a crucial benchmark on the way to 200,000, which McGrory and other Globe executives have identified as one of the keys to long-term financial sustainability. Those efforts are about to get a significant boost. Earlier this year, it was announced that the paper would adopt The Washington Post’s highly regarded content-management system, Arc, both for internal operations and for re-energizing the Globe’s web and mobile platforms.

Globe spokeswoman Jane Bowman said the rollout would begin in August, with updates throughout the fall and full adoption by the end of the year. “The move to Arc will relaunch globe.com with a focus on site speed and driving user engagement,” Bowman said via email. “We will extend our mobile offerings, with Arc powering new iOS and Android apps for digital subscribers. The newsroom will have access to Arc’s advanced testing and analytics tools, giving us deeper insight into how readers engage with our content.”

Henry also had some provocative things to say about objectivity, telling me, “A news journalist (as opposed to a columnist) has an obligation to sift through whatever evidence he or she can find and give the reader what actually has happened or is happening to the best of his or her ability much like a juror in a courtroom is asked to do. Today we get the news interpreted far too often rather than reported.”

The financier-turned-publisher’s efforts to reinvent the Globe as a business have been mixed. Expanded print sections, for the most part, have not worked out, as advertising to support those sections failed to materialize. Crux, a free website devoted to covering the Catholic Church, was given away to its star columnist, John Allen. A new $75 million printing plant in Taunton got off to a slow start, resulting in poor quality, late and missed deliveries, and the loss of client publications such as the Boston Herald and USA Today. A revamped version of Boston.com, stripped of Globe content, never really achieved liftoff.

On the other hand, the standalone website Stat, which covers health and life sciences, keeps chugging along. The newsroom and business operations were moved from the paper’s hulking, outmoded plant in Dorchester (sold for about $80 million) to downtown Boston. The Globe’s journalism remains excellent, and the newsroom, with about 220 full-timers, is far larger than it would have been if the paper had fallen into the hands of a corporate chain — as we saw this week with New York’s Daily News, whose staff was cut in half by tronc, its bizarrely named owner.

According to The Washington Post, the Daily News had as many as 400 full-time editorial employees in the late 1980s. After this week’s cuts, that number is now about 45 — an indication not only of how fortunate the Globe has been to have Henry at the helm, but of how bad it might get if he can’t turn things around.

A transcript of my email conversation with Henry follows.

Q: From time to time people tell me that you are considering selling the Globe. Lately that kind of talk has been more persistent — I’ve heard people say that you’re tired of losing money and perhaps tired of the recent controversies. So: Are you planning to sell the Globe?

A: We have had no discussions about selling nor is anything contemplated. I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime. Linda and I love and are committed to this city.

The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that. This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.

Q: If you are not planning to sell the Globe, are you committed to keeping it for the foreseeable future, which I’ll define as the next three to five years?

A: There is no time frame, honestly. We want to do our part and will, but ultimately the community’s support and the excellence of the paper will determine the long-term future.

I believe this community will support a news organization of this caliber. Brian has done a terrific job of early on moving us primarily into local reporting and over the past year or so has really moved us to more and more relevant, interesting and compelling stories across New England. Every day there are “can’t miss” stories.

Journalism is under attack in this country. We all know facts are under attack. Facts. What should be under attack in journalism these days are not facts but the lack of objective reporting. Personally I reject the notion that you can’t have highly objective reporting although the media seems to believe it isn’t possible. To me that is a long-held myth that has no place in a democracy. A news journalist (as opposed to a columnist) has an obligation to sift through whatever evidence he or she can find and give the reader what actually has happened or is happening to the best of his or her ability much like a juror in a courtroom is asked to do. Today we get the news interpreted far too often rather than reported.

Q: When I was doing my reporting for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” you and others told me that the Globe’s revenues were about $300 million a year. Could you tell me what they are today? What is the gap between revenues and expenses — in other words, how much are you losing?

A: The annual losses are just not sustainable but even if I personally felt that it was acceptable to continue losing significant sums, it does not put the news organization on the road to sustainability. Sooner or later it must sustain itself and it will — again though it will require the Globe convincing the community that it is worthwhile to support.

Q: Do you have concrete plans to fill the gap and move to break-even? You’ve had some success in charging for digital subscriptions, but what can you point to beyond that? How many digital-only subscribers do you now have — did you meet the 100,000 target that had been announced for the end of June?

A: Bridging the gap will not be easy but we have been working on it all year. Last week [early July] we were at 94,797 digital-only subscribers. While the numbers continue to grow, advertising revenues across the country are being gobbled up by Google and Facebook. Bloomberg today reported, “Omnicom Group suffered its biggest decline in nine years after posting sluggish results, renewing concerns that the ad giant can weather media disruption spurred by the likes of Google and Facebook.”

Q: Do you believe the Taunton printing problems have been straightened out or are at least under control? Contracted work was supposed to be a big part of your strategy, but you have lost customers, including the Boston Herald and USA Today. Do you have a strategy to sign up new customers or to lure back old ones (or both)?

A: Yes, and everyone there has been doing everything they can to reduce costs while at the same time getting used to new equipment that initially was extremely challenging.

Whether or not we print other publications comes down to cost primarily. Our cost structure was such that the Herald could be printed more cheaply out of the area. Our costs also led to minimal profit from printing other papers. If we can get our costs in line and be efficient enough we will have almost certainly have more commercial clients than The New York Times.

Q: When will you name a successor to editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, who recently announced her retirement? [Clegg and I plan to work on a project together. See this disclosure.] Have you chosen anyone? Can you say who that is?

A: This is an extremely important position so we will take our time. Ellen has done a superb job for us and we will miss her.

Q: What do you expect the Globe’s adoption of The Washington Post’s Arc platform is going to accomplish for you? When will that be implemented?

A: I’m not the best person to talk with about this, but it is exciting. Our number one issue is reader experience and having an app experience across platforms as well as a new site will be great for readers.

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Media roundup: Censorship in LA; publicly funded news in NJ; and the death of a pioneer

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Update: Judge Walter has lifted his order.

It’s a basic tenet of press freedom: news organizations may publish public documents they lawfully obtained even if they got those documents by mistake. And so editors at the Los Angeles Times thought they were on solid ground last week when they reported the details of a plea agreement reached between a corrupt police officer and a federal judge — even though the Times obtained that information because the government had accidentally uploaded the plea agreement to a public database.

Judge John Walter ordered the Times to remove parts of the article after a lawyer for the police officer, a narcotics detective named John Saro Balian, argued that his client’s life would be in danger. The Times complied, though its new celebrity editor, Norman Pearlstine, has vowed to fight. “There is sort of a constant effort to nibble away at the First Amendment,” Pearlstine told The New York Times, “and I think there is an obligation to respond to that and push back. Once it’s out in the public record, it is our decision to decide whether it is newsworthy and we should publish.”

Pearlstine was recently hired by the Times’ new billionaire owner, the surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, in the hopes of leading the paper back to greatness following years of budget cuts and chaotic ownership. Though highly regarded, Pearlstine some years ago found himself on the wrong side of a major First Amendment case. As editor-in-chief of Time Inc., Pearlstine turned over reporter Matthew Cooper’s notes in the Valerie Plame investigation, thus complying with a court order. (No, I am not going to rehash that morass of a story. If you want to know more, click here.) Pearlstine said he acted because Cooper’s source, George W. Bush chief operative Karl Rove, wasn’t truly confidential and because Time Inc. had already lost its legal appeal.

“Although we were ready to spend millions of dollars on litigation, I had to ask whether this strange case was the one on which we wanted to draw the line by ignoring a contempt order,” Pearlstine wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Off the Record,” quoted by Douglas McCollum in the Columbia Journalism Review.

This time, Pearlstine is on the side of the First Amendment angels. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, put it this way in a statement: “It is plainly unconstitutional for a court to order a news outlet to remove public information from an article it has published. It does not matter whether the information was placed in a court file by mistake.”

Judge Walter’s temporary restraining order is under appeal. The standard for such issues was defined in 1979 by Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote in the 1979 case of Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co. that “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”

What’s taking place in Los Angeles is censorship, plain and simple. Walter’s order should be overturned as quickly and decisively as possible.

An experiment in public funding of news

Government funding of the media has long been regarded as toxic to journalism’s watchdog role. Public media organizations such as WGBH receive indirect funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Smaller nonprofit news projects like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego receive subsidies by way of their tax-exempt status. But government officials do not decide what news gets covered.

New Jersey, though, is going to try something different. Its recently passed budget includes $5 million for local news initiatives. Donations are being sought as well. Yes, there is still some protection. According to the Associated Press, the money will be distributed by a nonprofit organization to be called the Civic Information Consortium, with a 15-member board comprising appointees chosen by elected officials as well as representatives of the state’s colleges and universities, the news media, and the public. The idea was developed by the Free Press Action Fund, part of the media-reform group Free Press, which has done yeoman’s work in educating the public about net neutrality.

Caught between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey suffers from a paucity of news coverage. As described by the AP, members of a community with no coverage of their city government could ask the consortium for money to fund a reporter. The idea brushes right up against the wall separating journalism from government interference, although it seems that those involved have made a good-faith effort to maintain at least some semblance of independence.

Still, as Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute told the AP, “When you start taking public money you have to start with the suspicion that at some point the system will be corrupted by power.” This is a worthwhile experiment, but it will have to be monitored closely.

Marcia Chambers, 1940-2018

A remarkable journalist left us last week. Marcia Chambers, a former New York Times reporter and editor who spent her so-called retirement running the Branford Eagle, the small community news site she launched, died at the age of 78. Chambers operated her site beneath the umbrella of the New Haven Independent, whose founder and editor, Paul Bass, paid tribute to her over the weekend.

Marcia Chambers, Journalist, 1940-2018
Marcia Chambers and Paul Bass at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party in 2010. Photo (cc) 2010 by Dan Kennedy.

I wrote about one of Chambers’ exploits in “The Wired City,” my 2013 book about new forms of online journalism. While the Independent was investigating the murder of a Yale graduate student named Annie Le, Chambers somehow obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of the suspect, Raymond Clark, who claimed he had forced her to have sex when they were both students at Branford High School. As a condition of receiving the report, Chambers promised not to publish it until after an arrest had been made. But that didn’t mean there were not other uses to which the report could be put.

The Independent’s Melissa Bailey typed the woman’s name into Facebook, discovered that she had an account, and friended her, letting her know she was a reporter covering the murder. After Clark’s arrest (he was later convicted), Bailey and Chambers wrote a storywithout using the woman’s name. “I can’t believe this is true,” they quoted the woman as writing on her Facebook page. “I feel like im 16 all over again. Its jsut bringing back everything.”

The revelation that the Independent had the police report created a media stampede, Bailey said later. “People were calling us, begging us for this police report,” she told a researcher for Columbia University. “The New York Times came in and practically tried to arm-wrestle Paul.” It was a triumph for Chambers — one of many in a long and productive career.

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The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s all about Trump. And so it should come as no surprise that the 2018 New England Muzzle Awards have taken on a distinctly orange hue, singling out — among other offenses — thuggish attempts by President Donald Trump and his minions to suppress speech they found embarrassing.

One of those coveted Muzzles is being presented to the president himself, who, through his lawyer, Michael Cohen, threatened a member of the Harvard Lampoon with expulsion over a harmless prank. The other goes to former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who raised the specter of a libel suit against a student who’d written a critical op-ed piece about The Mooch in the Tufts campus newspaper.

On a considerably lesser scale, former president Barack Obama should be on the lookout for a golden Muzzle in his mailbox as well. Earlier this year, Obama (or someone he was associated with) demanded that his remarks to several thousand people at a Boston conference on sports statistics, of all things, be kept off the record. Team Obama’s action was as absurd as it was inappropriate — and, as they learned, unenforceable as well.

Also: The 2018 Campus Muzzle Awards:
Four Institutions that Dishonored Freedom

Of course, the Muzzles encompass far more than presidential politics. This year’s winners range from Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans, who expressed unseemly pleasure that right-wing activists couldn’t be heard at a “Free Speech Rally” they had organized last August, to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, whose oft-stated commitment to open government is contradicted by her censorious interpretation of the state’s public-records law. For good measure, we single out two Rhode Island legislators who are pushing a priggish piece of legislation that has become known as the “internet porn tax.”

This year’s Muzzles are being awarded against a backdrop of fear and hatred whipped up by President Trump, whose cries of “fake news” have served to delegitimize the press among his followers and to undermine the First Amendment. Earlier this year it was learned that the White House had obtained the phone and email records of a New York Times journalist in secret, which denied her an opportunity to fight that order in court. More broadly, Trump triggered a humanitarian catastrophe with his policy of separating the families of undocumented immigrants when they try to enter the United States, calling into question the nation’s commitment to the rule of law. He eventually backed down, but the fate of the children who were taken away from their parents is still unclear — especially given his subsequent remark that undocumented immigrants should be turned away at the border without due process.

The Muzzle Awards, launched in 1998, were published for many years by the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the sixth year they have been hosted by WGBH News. They take their name from the Jefferson Muzzles, begun in 1992 by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The envelopes, please. Continue reading “The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech”