If I had a nickel for every time someone predicted the death of the Boston Herald over the past 25 years, I would have — well, many nickels. So I see last week’s announcement by Herald owner Pat Purcell that he plans to sell his paper to GateHouse Media as just one more bump in what has been an exceedingly bumpy road.
Twelve years ago, as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, I offered five suggestions for how the Herald could improve and build a more sustainable business. With the Herald changing ownership for the first time since 1994, when Purcell bought it from his mentor Rupert Murdoch, I thought I’d take a look at what I had to say in 2005 and see whether any of it is relevant today.
The tribalism that infects our public debate ensures that the monumental error committed last week by ABC News’ Brian Ross will have little effect among those already inclined to reject anything reported by the mainstream media. After all, members of the Trumpist 35 percent would have dismissed Ross even if Ross had been correct in reporting that Trump ordered Flynn to contact the Russians.
But for those of us who care about the reputation of the reality-based press (to borrow a phrase from Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan), Ross’ mistake at a key moment in the Russia probe could prove enormously damaging. As Jeff Greenfield, one of journalism’s éminences grises, said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” over the weekend, “This is exactly what Trump and his allies want to say: ‘No matter what you hear on mainstream media, it’s fake. They’re doing it to hurt us.’ And this is like handing a sword to the people who want all media to be looked at in that regard.” Moreover, as Greenfield noted, the damage was done by a reporter with exceptionally dubious track record, a theme I’ll return to below.
The guiding principle behind the First Amendment is that we all have a right to be heard. It is up to each of us, of course, whether we choose to listen. But no one — not the government, and certainly not the giant corporations that control so much of our communications infrastructure — may prevent anyone’s speech from competing in “the marketplace of ideas.”
But now that the internet has become by far the most important and prevalent means for conveying free speech, the demise of the First Amendment may be at hand. If, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission votes on Dec. 14 to do away with net neutrality, then the distribution of news, information, and entertainment will become utterly dependent on the whims of internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon. If you want your website to load quickly and be easily accessible, then you may have to pay a fee to the ISPs. And if you can’t afford it, well, too bad.
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally — that ISPs shouldn’t be able to speed up some services that are willing to pay and slow down or even block others. A hot topic for many years, it was finally enacted as a binding rule by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. With President Trump now in charge, though, the FCC has a new Republican chair — former (and, no doubt, future) telecom lawyer Ajit Pai — and a three-to-two Republican majority.
Hypotheticals put forth by net-neutrality advocates tend to focus on non-journalistic scenarios. For instance, in 2004, according to a Daily Dot round-up of net-neutrality violations, a North Carolina telecom called Madison River Communications blocked Vonage as it was attempting to launch its voice-over-internet phone service. The problem, you see, was that Vonage threatened Madison River’s landline business. The FCC, then as now under Republican control, fined Madison River $15,000, which just goes to show that dog-eat-dog capitalism was not always a matter of GOP orthodoxy. In 2011, reports the media-reform organization Free Press, Verizon blocked the Google Wallet payment system so that it could promote its own software instead. There are plenty of other examples as well.
The threat to journalism posed by the end of net neutrality is also very real. Imagine that a major media corporation owns the largest television station and largest newspaper in a given market (now allowed thanks to the FCC’s recent decision to abolish the cross-ownership ban), and that it pays the telecoms a hefty fee to guarantee that its digital platforms will load quickly and play video flawlessly. How can, say, a small start-up news organization compete?
Or imagine a ban on certain types of content — as happened in 2007, when Verizon briefly blocked pro-abortion-rights text messages. As the St. Louis-based commentator Sarah Kendzior wrote Sunday in The Globe and Mail of Toronto:
The threat to net neutrality highlights the reliance on social media and an independent press for political organizing in the digital age. Should net neutrality be eliminated, those avenues will likely become curtailed for much of the public or driven out of business due to loss of revenue. Without the means to freely communicate online, citizens will be far less able to challenge the administration. It doesn’t matter what cause someone prioritizes: The elimination of net neutrality will impede the ability to understand the cause, discuss it and organize around it.
So what is to be done? At this point, it may seem hopeless. The FCC will repeal net neutrality, and that’s the end of it. But there are a few threads we can grasp onto.
For one thing, we are beginning to learn that many of the messages the FCC received in support of ending net neutrality were bot-generated fakes. It’s not clear exactly how many, but Eric Levitz reports in New York magazine that more than a million identical anti-net neutrality messages had a pornhub.com email address. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating, and has complained that the FCC is being uncooperative in turning over the documents he needs.
For another, it is possible that the legal system may intervene and keep net neutrality alive. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu wrote in The New York Times last week that “by going this far, the FCC may also have overplayed its legal hand. So drastic is the reversal of policy (if, as expected, the commission approves Mr. Pai’s proposal next month), and so weak is the evidence to support the change, that it seems destined to be struck down in court.”
Finally, it’s never over until it’s over. Last week Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times urging the public to speak out and stop the agency from voting for repeal. “Before my fellow FCC members vote to dismantle net neutrality, they need to get out from behind their desks and computers and speak to the public directly,” she said. “The FCC needs to hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal.”
Despite all this, it is more likely than not that the FCC will repeal net neutrality. What options will we then have? Perhaps a company with real financial power, such as Google or Amazon, will roll out its own network, with net neutrality guaranteed. All you would have to lose is your privacy, or what little remains of it. Or, as this Vice story recommends, we should encourage the development of local ISPs, including municipally owned systems. (Thanks to the indefatigable Saul Tannenbaum for sending me the link.)
It would all be so much easier, though, if the FCC did the right thing. If you favor keeping net neutrality, what is the best way of registering your views? The FCC website is a maze. But Free Press has started a petition urging Pai to cancel the Dec. 14 vote and leave net neutrality in place. As a journalist, I rarely take direct political action except in matters like this, where freedom of speech and of the press is at stake. I’ve signed, and I hope you’ll consider doing so as well.
The Federal Communications Commission overturned a decades-old rule last week that prohibited common ownership of a television or radio station and a daily newspaper in the same city. At a time when newspapers are hemorrhaging money and the broadcast news business is shrinking, the FCC argued, the so-called cross-ownership ban had become obsolete, and was standing in the way of possible joint enterprises that could reinvigorate news coverage.
The more likely outcome of such hybrids would be combined newsrooms, layoffs, and a dumbed-down product. Here in Boston, it would mean something else as well: the end of a regulatory regime that was instrumental in shaping our media environment. It was an epic battle over cross-ownership that led to the rise of The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald’s slide into perpetual also-ran status, and the emergence of WCVB-TV (Channel 5) as one of the best local television stations in the country. The story is told in three books: “Common Ground,” J. Anthony Lukas’ monumental history of Boston during the busing era; “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” by John A. Farrell; and “Newspaper Story: One Hundred Years of the Boston Globe,” by Louis M. Lyons.
The origins of this tale goes back to January 1956, at a lunch at the Somerset Club on Beacon Hill attended by, among others, Herald publisher Robert “Beanie” Choate and Globe publisher Davis Taylor. The once-dominant Boston Post was about to fold, and Choate proposed that the Herald and the Globe — the largest and most influential of the city’s remaining papers — combine their forces and thus avoid an expensive newspaper war. When Taylor refused, Choate reportedly told him: “You fellows are stubborn. Worse than that, you’re arrogant. You better listen to us or we’ll teach you a lesson. I’m going to get Channel 5, and with my television revenues I’ll put you out of business.”
Two commercial TV channels were already on the air in Boston. Under FCC guidelines, the third license — that is, Channel 5 — should not have been awarded to the Herald, which already owned two radio stations. Yet it was, after a furious round of lobbying by Choate. When Davis Taylor and his cousin John Taylor made the rounds in Washington to find out what had gone wrong, they were told by House Minority Leader Joe Martin, a North Attleborough Republican, “I’m afraid you fellas have just been outpoliticked.”
Indeed they had been. It seemed that Joe Kennedy was determined to win his son Jack a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Profiles in Courage.” The judges in the biography category were so unimpressed with “Profiles” that it did not even appear among the eight books they nominated, so Kennedy and his friend Arthur Krock — a veteran New York Times columnist who had stepped down as chairman of the Pulitzer board several years earlier — worked to persuade board members to overrule the judges and award the prize to Jack Kennedy. Joe Kennedy and Krock succeeded.
Among the Pulitzer board members who concluded that “Profiles in Courage” deserved a Pulitzer was none other than Beanie Choate. No surprise there. Joe Kennedy had dispatched one of his coat-holders, Francis Xavier Morrissey, a municipal-court judge, to assure Choate that he would get the license to Channel 5 if he voted to give JFK a Pulitzer. And Joe Kennedy was as good as his word. By a four-to-two vote, the FCC granted the license to Choate; siding with the majority were two commissioners with close ties to Kennedy.
Choate’s victory represented an existential threat to the Globe. Its young Washington bureau chief, future executive editor Robert Healy, was assigned the task of trying to unearth information that could reverse the FCC’s decision. Healy cultivated an unlikely source: Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, then a rising Cambridge congressman, who was interested in higher office but was afraid he would be blocked by the Republican-leaning Herald if the Globe went out of business. With O’Neill’s help, Healy got access to the inner workings of a congressional investigation into federal regulatory agencies. Healy was able to report the existence of telephone records that showed FCC chairman George McConnaughey had improper contacts with Choate. That, along with several other stories, led the FCC in 1972 to strip the Herald of its television license.
Without a television station to prop it up, the Herald Traveler, as it was then known, could not survive. It was sold to Hearst’s Record American, which published the paper as the Herald American until 1981, when a rising press baron named Rupert Murdoch rescued it. Channel 5, meanwhile, was acquired by a civic-minded community group called Boston Broadcasters, who adopted the call letters WCVB, pumped up its news operation, and innovated with local programming such as “Chronicle,” a magazine-style show that survives to this day. WCVB was sold in 1982, leaving its founders very wealthy but the station itself less ambitious and more focused on the bottom line. Even now, though, the Boston television market is widely considered to be smarter than is the case in most areas of the country, a situation that can be attributed in part to the legacy of Channel 5.
Perhaps one of the more surprising elements of the Globe-Herald struggle was that O’Neill and the Kennedy family found themselves on opposite sides, and that the Kennedys’ interests were aligned with the Herald rather than the Globe. Eventually, O’Neill and the Kennedys formed a tight bond, and the Globe was often regarded as close — inappropriately in some cases — with both the future House speaker and the members of the Kennedy dynasty.
The Globe’s relationship with the Kennedys played itself out in a faint echo of the Channel 5 story in 1988, when Rupert Murdoch purchased Channel 25. Sen. Ted Kennedy quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver allowing Murdoch to own both a TV station and a newspaper in Boston. Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald. Several years later Murdoch repurchased Channel 25 and sold the Herald to his longtime protégé Pat Purcell, who continues as the Herald’s publisher to this day. Thus did the cross-ownership ban not only pave the way for the Globe’s rise to dominance but it ended Rupert Murdoch’s years in the city’s newspaper market as well.
Now the cross-ownership ban is gone. How will that change the Boston media scene? The current Globe owner, John Henry, has long been interested in television. Both the Globe and the Herald operate internet radio stations that feature music and talk, respectively. Might they seek to purchase terrestrial radio stations? Or could the owner of one of the city’s TV stations buy one or both newspapers?
There’s no question that the rise of digital technology has hollowed out traditional media, rendering the cross-ownership ban archaic in some respects. On balance, though, the ban has been good for Boston news consumers. What comes next is likely to have a lot more to do with profits than with the public interest.
Barbara Howard of WGBH Radio’s “All Things Considered” and I talked about the FCC’s regulatory changes last week. Click here if you’d like to give it a listen.
Thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T’s monopolistic dreams may not come true after all. According to media reports, the government may block AT&T’s proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Even if the deal is approved, AT&T may be required to sell off CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.
Under normal circumstances, such action would be welcome news for those who have long opposed media concentration and its accompanying ills: fewer choices, higher prices, and more power for corporate executives to control what we watch, listen to, and read. But nothing is normal in the Age of Trump. And in this case, it appears that opposition to the deal may be driven less by antitrust law and more by the president’s ongoing fury at CNN.
Who, after all, can forget Trump’s outburst after CNN revealed the existence (though not the contents) of the infamous dossier of raw Russian intelligence, which claimed the president-elect had engaged in financial shenanigans and embarrassing personal behavior? “Your organization is terrible,” Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta at a news conference last January, adding: “You are fake news.” The relationship has not improved since then.
Thus anti-monopolists find themselves in the awkward position of supporting Trump’s Justice Department on the AT&T-Time Warner merger while feeling obliged to point out that federal regulators may well be doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Timothy Karr of Free Press, a prominent media-reform organization that opposes the merger, nevertheless writes that “Trump would be dead wrong, however, to pull the levers of government to force more favorable coverage from CNN.” Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who also argues that the merger should be rejected, worries that Trump’s loose lips and tawdry tweets may end up working to AT&T’s advantage: “Trump’s rhetoric about the deal, which dates back to his presidential campaign, has muddled the issues — and may even have increased the chances that the deal will go through with all its negative aspects intact.”
I’ve been writing about the threats posed by media concentration since the 1990s. Given the circumstances, though, I think the AT&T-Time Warner deal ought to be approved — and not because (or not just because) it would infuriate Trump. Much as I agree with Karr and Hiltzik in the abstract, I can think of three very good reasons why we might be better off if AT&T winds up as CNN’s corporate overlord.
• Rupert Murdoch — yes, that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Channel and friend of Trump — has reportedly indicated an eagerness to add CNN to his empire should it become available. According to Jessica Toonkel of Reuters, Murdoch called AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson twice during the past six months to discuss a possible deal should AT&T be forced to sell off CNN.
• A deal that would allow Sinclair Broadcast Group to acquire Tribune Media’s television stations appears to be on track, giving the company control of more than 200 stations around the country. And Sinclair is notorious for using its power in local markets to advance a right-wing, pro-Trump agenda. Over the weekend, for instance, David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun detailed how a Sinclair-owned station in Alabama ran a deceptive report in its local newscast to try to discredit The Washington Post’s coverage of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
• Bigger is not better — far from it. But given the enormous power over content and distribution amassed by the platform giants Facebook and Google, it may be that traditional concerns about media concentration are obsolete. Perhaps the best way to fight the new media giants is by empowering the old. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, AT&T’s Stephenson made exactly that point recently. “Essentially,” Marshall wrote, “he argued that only by combining a company with a dominant position in distribution (AT&T) with a content company (Time Warner) could anyone hope to compete with the platform monopolies Google and Facebook in the advertising business.”
Earlier this week, Bloomberg’s David McLaughlin, Scott Moritz, and Sara Forden reported that AT&T will ask a judge to provide the company with communications between the White House and the Justice Department if the government sues to stop the merger. That could make for some very interesting reading.
Murdoch lurking in the wings. A super-empowered Sinclair wreaking havoc in television markets around the country. Traditional media being hamstrung by old laws while Facebook and Google continue to reign unchecked. Those would be reasons enough to approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger. But the specter that President Trump is attempting to orchestrate this as a way to punish a journalistic enemy looms over all of this.
Is there a more amiable personality in television news than Bob Schieffer? The longtime CBS News journalist, who turned 80 earlier this year, harks back to a time when social consensus of a sort prevailed over the bitter polarization that defines the Age of Trump. Rather than get left behind, though, Schieffer has worked to understand the forces that are shaping the new media environment.
Now Schieffer and several of his colleagues have written a book that serves as a quick and useful survey of the current moment. “Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News” is part guidebook, part lament for an era when people could at least agree on what they were arguing about. Schieffer quotes the late New York Times reporter Jim Naughton, who described the effects of the media fragmentation caused by the rise of Fox News and talk radio:
Now, we’re no longer basing our opinions on the same stuff — some folks get one set of facts from one outlet and other folks get another set of facts from another outlet, no wonder they come to different conclusions.
In retrospect, of course, the fragmentation described by Naughton seems rather benign compared to more recent developments such as the rise of white-nationalist outlets like Breitbart News and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars. And Schieffer does not like what he sees. Though Schieffer celebrates the cornucopia of news that digital media have made possible, he understands the problems that have come with that as well. As he once put it before a gathering at Harvard, “Now all the nuts can find each other.”
Parts of “Overload” are repurposed from “About the News,” a podcast that Schieffer hosts with his co-author, H. Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. I cannot offer an unbiased view of “Overload.” In 2016 Schieffer and I overlapped as fellows at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School. He and Schwartz interviewed me on “About the News” to talk about my Shorenstein paper on Jeff Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post. Schieffer also quotes me in “Overload” and blurbed “The Return of the Moguls,” my forthcoming book on Bezos, John Henry of The Boston Globe, and other wealthy newspaper publishers.
Schieffer examines the passing of the old, the rise of the new, and the phenomenon of “fake news,” which took the form of falsehoods and rumors even before the internet was flooded with viral content farms and Russian propaganda. “Since 9/11, we have come to realize that reporting accurate information is only part of our job; equally important is our responsibility to knock down false and misleading information and to do it as quickly as possible,” Schieffer writes. Then, too, we live at a time when the president of the United States denounces journalism he doesn’t like as “fake news,” thus reinforcing in the minds of his supporters that there is no fundamental difference between, say, the “failing” New York Times and the latest foolishness that Tucker Carlson is attempting to foist upon his viewers.
Among the journalists Schieffer interviews are Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith, and the veteran digital journalist Walt Mossberg. It is Mossberg who reminds us that the good old days weren’t always so good (“If an idealistic reporter wanted to write a story about how a local car dealer was ripping off the public and the car dealer was the newspaper’s biggest advertiser, a lot of those papers would have killed the story”) and who neatly describes the most serious problem created by the explosion of digital media outlets: “Today we have way more journalists, way more information providers, and way less curation.”
Schieffer closes on a note of humility, reminding his readers of the role of a free press at a time when the White House has labeled news organizations as “the enemy of the American People!”
“We are not the opposition party. We are reporters,” Schieffer writes. “Our role is simply to ask questions and to keep asking until we get an answer.” It’s no longer that simple, of course, and Schieffer knows it. But we would all be better off if we could return to a time when the president and the public understood as well as Schieffer does exactly what journalism’s role is. And isn’t.
To understand the current Trumpist obsession with Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One story, you first need to know what it is not. Uranium One is not a scandal or even a discrete set of facts that can be weighed and assessed. Rather, it is a talisman wielded by President Trump’s most ardent defenders in the hope of warding off the burgeoning Russia scandal.
Thus we have absurd characters like Sean Hannity of Fox News calling it “one of the biggest scandals in American history involving another country.” And The Daily Signal, a right-wing website published by the Heritage Foundation, asking, “Why isn’t the mainstream media covering Uranium One?” And Conrad Black, who speculates in The New York Sun that special counsel Robert Mueller will — or at least should — go after Clinton’s allies the Podesta brothers for their role in Uranium One now that the Russia inquiry has fallen apart. Because, you know, nothing says fallen apart quite like the indictment of two former Trump campaign officials and a guilty plea from a third, with the promise of more to come.
David French, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, explained in The New York Times what’s going on:
The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.” “Fake news” erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation — including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials — represents “fake news.”
The Trump supporters pushing the Uranium One story are impervious to facts not because they’re stupid but because the purpose of telling it is to put the media on the defensive. Nevertheless, there are facts, and I’ve endeavored to find out what they are by consulting the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org.
The verdict: There’s nothing to the claim, first made by then-candidate Trump in 2016, that the United States gave away 20 percent of its uranium to Russia and that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was responsible. The facts are incredibly convoluted —we are, after all, talking about the Clintons. The full narrative encompasses the Clinton Foundation, a speaking fee paid to Bill Clinton, and a dubious book called “Clinton Cash,” written by a conservative activist named Peter Schweizer, promoted by Stephen Bannon, and, for reasons that have never been credibly explained, used by The New York Times as the basis for some of its reporting on the Clintons. But, FactCheck.org says:
It may be that individuals and companies sought to curry favor with Hillary Clinton and even influence her department’s decision on the Uranium One sale. But, as we’ve written before, there is no evidence that donations to the Clinton Foundation from people with ties to Uranium One or Bill Clinton’s speaking fee influenced Hillary Clinton’s official actions. That’s still the case.
Vox has a shorter, easier-to-follow take on the deal that calls the Republican conspiracy theory involving Uranium One “a thoroughly debunked and verifiably false charge.” Vox, in turn, cites a report by yet another nonpartisan fact-checking site, PolitiFact, which rated Trump’s accusations against Clinton as “mostly false.”
It’s also worth keeping in mind that Trump, not Clinton, is president — something that you might forget if you get pulled into the Fox News rabbit hole. (Hannity went so far as to call Hillary “President Clinton” the other day.) Even if there were reason to believe Clinton had been involved in wrongdoing (again, there isn’t), the value to the public of pursuing her at this point is not very high. On the other hand, the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians goes to the very heart of our democracy.
“The right-wing response to Robert Mueller’s investigation is to change the subject, preferably to an alleged ‘scandal’ involving Hillary Clinton,” writes CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who adds: “This creates a thick layer of fog, making it hard to see what really matters. Maybe this is the goal. Regardless, it poses a challenge for journalists who are trying to convey the truth.”
The truth is that the Uranium One story isn’t about the truth. The Trump White House and its allies are essentially gaming the media’s old-fashioned dedication to balance — regardless of the facts — by flinging unsupportable charges that will be reported alongside the Russia news in the name of being fair and objective. Trump’s allies, who despise Clinton, will grab onto those stories and denounce everything else as “fake news.”
It’s an ugly and depressing situation with no clear solution.
Talk is cheap. If President Trump actually followed through on his multifarious threats against the First Amendment, then those of us who report and comment on the news would already be on our way to a detention camp — a beautiful detention camp, for sure — somewhere in the empty spaces of Oklahoma.
He has, after all, threatened to undo the laws that protect journalists from frivolous libel suits. He has said that he would revoke Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks in retaliation for the harsh coverage he’s gotten from The Washington Post, owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has said that he may unleash a wave of subpoenas that would force reporters to identify anonymous leakers. And just recently, Trump demanded a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into media organizations that report what he calls “fake news” and suggested that the broadcast licenses held by NBC should be revoked.
But Trump in theory and Trump in practice are two entirely different things. Though his anti-press rhetoric can be frightening at times, his follow-through has been pretty much nonexistent. Meanwhile, as First Amendment expert Jameel Jaffer says, Trump could legitimately if inadvertently lay claim to presiding over “the most transparent administration in history,” to invoke a solemn promise by Barack Obama that unfortunately preceded eight years of stonewalling on public records as well as an unprecedented crackdown on leakers.
“To say that the Trump administration leaks like a sieve would be very unfair to sieves,” Jaffer said Tuesday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Moreover, Trump’s Twitter feed — he has tweeted more than 2,000 times since Election Day — offers a look into “the unvarnished presidential id,” Jaffer said, quoting Nixon biographer John Farrell.
Jaffer, currently the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, had previously served as deputy legal director for the ACLU. His work on a lawsuit aimed at shaking loose documents from the George W. Bush administration resulted in the publication of the so-called torture memos — the legal rationale produced by the White House to justify waterboarding and other inhumane tactics used in questioning terrorism suspects.
Despite Jaffer’s backhanded praise for Trump, he is hardly sanguine. For one thing, he noted, Trump’s tweets come at us in such volume that they distract us and distort the public discourse. “We should be careful not to mistake noise for transparency,” he said. In addition, seeming openness in one realm is often used to mask efforts to cover up information elsewhere. For instance, the White House recently released an eight-minute video on its efforts to deal with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico while simultaneously removing statistics related to the relief effort from government websites.
Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press — including his references to news organizations as “the enemy of the American people” — need to be taken seriously as well, Jaffer said. He called those attacks “an assault on transparency” aimed at undermining faith in the media, calling into question even “provable truths.” The effect, he said, is to replace journalists with Trump himself as the arbiter of what is true and false. And at least among his strongest supporters, he’s had some success. For instance, a Morning Consult/Politico poll released on Wednesday found that 46 percent of those surveyed “believe major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump.” That proportion rises to a stunning 76 percent among Republicans. (For a full breakdown, click here and turn to page 146.)
“If this is transparency at all,” Jaffer said, “it is transparency we should distrust and interrogate rather than applaud.”
My own fear — and I think Jaffer would agree — is that Trump has stirred up such hatred for the media (not that we were ever popular) that basic press protections could be in danger. Yes, you can believe that the courts will protect us; Trump’s Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whatever his other shortcomings, seems as likely to support a robust First Amendment as his colleagues. But as Charles Pierce recently noted at Esquire.com, we are closer than you might think to the unthinkable prospect of a constitutional convention at which everything would be up for grabs, including the Bill of Rights. I do not assume that basic constitutional guarantees would survive in the current environment.
As I said, talk is cheap. But talk such as Trump’s cheapens the public discourse, giving people permission to indulge their hatreds and prejudices. We’re already seeing it happen.
At the end of Jaffer’s lecture, he was asked what makes him hopeful in this dark time. His response: The outpouring of protest against the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, including tens of thousands of people in Boston who demonstrated against hate. “It’s a great relief to me to see people coalescing around this stuff,” he said.
So is Trump a threat or a menace to the First Amendment? I think it’s important to separate Trump’s words from his actions. To this point, at least, the president’s anti-media rhetoric has had no more effect than his attacks on Obamacare (dismantledlast Thursday; revived with his support on Tuesday), or his ever-shifting views on tax cuts. My philosophy: Keep a close ear out for what he says — but don’t panic until he actually does something.
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?
Goaded by the likes of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Democrats are pushing for (among other things) a greater government role in health care; an end to free-trade agreements that cost American jobs; the humane treatment of immigrants, both documented and undocumented; and continued progress on LGBTQ issues. In too many instances, though, the media are describing these slight tweaks to the moderate liberalism of the Obama years as if Democrats were marching in the streets singing “The Internationale.” And the press just can’t stay away from so-called balance. For instance, a Sunday New York Times story on the rise of the “Resistance” put it this way:
The upending of the left comes amid a broader realignment in American politics, with the Republican Party establishment also contending with a rising rebellion, driven by pro-Trump populists. Just as the new forces on the right are threatening primary challenges to establishment Republicans, some groups on the left have begun talking about targeting Democratic incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections.
Washington Post columnist Dan Balz, who epitomizes establishment thinking as David Broder once did, went out of his way to balance the Democrats’ “leftward movement” with the Republicans’ “rightward shift” and warned that Democrats “must find a way to harness the movement into a political vision that is attractive to voters beyond the Democratic base.”
The problem is that no reasonable comparison can be made between the two parties’ ideological shifts. Long before the age of Trump, the Republicans established themselves as the party of no. A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was impeached because of a personal scandal that would have — should have — remained a secret but that was revealed through a partisan Republican investigation. The filibuster became routine under Republican rule, making it impossible to conduct the business of the Senate. The Republicans refuse to talk about gun control or climate change. The party hit bottom by refusing even to consider Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee — a deeply transgressive breach of longstanding norms on the part of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. And all of this was before the race-baiting, white-supremacist-coddling Donald Trump became president.
A few years ago Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann — cautious think-tank types — wrote a book called “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” that frankly blamed the breakdown of government on Republican extremism. They challenged journalists to describe this reality, writing in an op-ed piece:
“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias … We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.
The institutional desire for evenhandedness, though, is so deeply ingrained that journalists struggle to move beyond it. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has called this the “production of innocence,” meaning that the press reflexively adopts equivalence between the two major parties as its default position even when the facts scream out against balance. “The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned,” Rosen wrote. “What if that is not even possible? What if you have to risk the appearance of being partisan in order to describe accurately what is going on in a hyper-partisan situation?”
What’s going on in the Democratic Party right now may or may not be smart in terms of its future electoral prospects. It could be that the incremental liberalism of the Clinton and Obama eras has run its course and that it’s time for something bolder. Or not. In any case, the Democrats’ search for a new identity cannot remotely be compared to the Republicans’ embrace of extremism and nihilism. Resisting the urge to balance the inherently unbalanced will be difficult for journalists grounded in the ethos of equivalence at all costs. But they need to try.