Elizabeth Warren rose above her dispute with Bernie Sanders over who said what and offered a powerful argument about gender and politics at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. But it might be too late to matter.
That, at least, appears to be the consensus in my quick scan of political punditry following the final candidates’ forum before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
The New York Times today profiles Prager University, a right-wing meme factory founded by media figure Dennis Prager. In case you don’t know anything about Prager, I thought you’d be interested in some background.
In 2017, I gave a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award to YouTube and its owner, Google, for restricting access to a pro-Israel video made by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz for Prager University. The video could still be accessed, but by installing a speed bump, YouTube sent a clear signal that there was something transgressive about it — a ridiculous stance regardless of what you think of Dershowitz’s views.
In 2016, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby mixed it up with Prager after Jacoby accused his fellow conservatives of hypocrisy for throwing in with Donald Trump despite his well-documented moral depravity. That led to some back-and-forth between Prager and Jacoby in which Prager accused Jacoby of “gratuitous hatred.” Jacoby responded:
For me, the most disheartening aspect of the whole Trump phenomenon has been the sight of so many good, principled people deciding that their good principles need not keep them from marching behind Trump’s squalid banner.
As you’ll see from Nellie Bowles’ Times story, Prager is quite a piece of work.
The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.
These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.
10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson?(March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.
9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.
7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.
6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?
5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head(Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.
4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.
3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism(Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.
2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.
1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.
So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.
As newspapers have moved away from making their content freely available online, a lot of thinking that seemed forward-looking a few years ago needs to be re-examined. Near the top of the list is the future of the newspaper bundle — that combination of local, national and international news, sports, comics, the crossword puzzle, the school lunch menu and myriad other features that traditionally comprised a daily newspaper.
In the early years of online news, when it seemed reasonable to imagine that digital advertising could subsidize free journalism, the bundle was often described as a relic of the industrial age. Disparate content was brought together, according to this line of reasoning, not because it belonged in one place but because printing was a high-cost manufacturing enterprise. It was logical for the local newspaper to be a one-stop destination for all kinds of material. But with print receding into the past, readers could skip from a hyperlocal website for community news, to a dedicated sports site, to yet another site for comics and puzzles,
“The web wrecks horizontal integration,” wrote C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky in their influential 2012 report “Post-Industrial Journalism.” “Prior to the web, having a dozen good-but-not-great stories in one bundle used to be enough to keep someone from hunting for the dozen best stories in a dozen different publications. In a world of links and feeds, however, it is often easier to find the next thing you read, watch or listen to from your friends than it is to stick with any given publication.”
But at a time when readers are once again being asked to pay for newspaper journalism, some sort of bundling is necessary. The days of regularly surfing among multiple free websites are drawing to a close. For any one newspaper to stand out as something to which readers will be willing to buy a subscription, it almost certainly has to offer a wide variety of content.
From the newspaper business’ point of view, the ideal reader would buy digital subscriptions to national, regional and local newspapers. But that’s asking a lot. The reality is that most people aren’t going to subscribe to any newspaper, and those who do are likely to choose one, maybe two. Which means that the newspaper needs to be all things to most people in a way that we thought was obsolete just a few years ago.
In early 2016 I interviewed Bill Marimow, the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, days after its billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, had donated the Inquirer and its related media properties to a nonprofit organization. (The Philadelphia story comprises a section in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”) The Inquirer was just getting ready to start charging for digital subscriptions. And I was struck by what Marimow told me he thought needed to be part of the daily mix.
“If you look at today’s paper,” he said, “you’ll see stories that represent the best of city news, Philadelphia suburbs, South Jersey, national and foreign.” I expressed some surprise at Marimow’s insistence on national and international news since the Inquirer relied almost exclusively on wire services for anything outside the Philadelphia area. His answer was that 90% of his readers did not read a national paper and thus relied on the Inquirer.
You see this at The Boston Globe, too. Before the internet began to take a toll on the newspaper business in the 1990s, the Globe — and many other large regional newspapers, including the Inquirer — had a number of U.S. and international bureaus. With the exception of a Washington bureau, those are all gone now. But the Globe continues to publish quite a bit of national and international news from wire services, both in print and online.
Ten years ago, that would have been described as old-media thinking. Now, with the Globe charging $30 a month for digital subscriptions, it makes a great deal of sense to position the paper as a single stop for most of its customers. After all, if the Globe forced its best readers to subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal in order to get news from beyond the Boston area, there’s a real danger that they would decide to drop the Globe.
When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, he announced that he wanted to reinvigorate the traditional newspaper bundle. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said. “They will not pay for a story.” Bezos’ attitude seemed archaic for someone who had made his reputation as a tech visionary. One of the Post’s younger journalists, Timothy B. Lee, went so far as to disagree with his new boss in a piece headlined “Sorry, Jeff Bezos, the news bundle isn’t coming back.”
“Trying to recreate the ‘bundle’ experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today,” Lee wrote. “In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.”
It turned out that Bezos was right and Lee was wrong — not because Lee was mistaken about how the web had changed news habits, but because paywalls were going up everywhere, thus forcing a change in those habits whether readers liked it or not. Under Bezos’ ownership, the Post’s digital bundle has led to profits and growth, re-establishing the paper as a serious competitor to the Times.
With Google and Facebook capturing the vast majority of digital advertising in recent years, paid content has become the last stand. It may not work for more than a handful of mostly national titles. But, if nothing else, paywalls have given new life to the idea of the bundle that has traditionally defined the general-interest newspaper.
In September 2018, President Donald Trump won an important First Amendment victory. By a 3-0 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that neither Trump nor his campaign could be held liable for injuries suffered by protesters at the hands of Trump supporters during a March 2016 rally even though the then-candidate had yelled to “get ’em out of here.”
The court’s reasoning was based on the straightforward application of free-speech principles: Trump had not advocated violence at the Kentucky rally (in fact, he had also said “don’t hurt ’em”), and therefore he couldn’t be successfully sued even though some people were roughed up.
The decision may have been a disappointment for those who thought Trump should be held accountable for his careless words. But under the First Amendment, political speech receives the highest level of protection except in the most extreme circumstances.
Now, though, those principles are in danger. Based on a similar set of facts, the 5th Circuit ruled recently that a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, can sue Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson for injuries he received at the hands of a rock-throwing protester — even though, as The Washington Post reported, “Mckesson did not throw the rock or tell anyone else to throw it.”
Mckesson had organized the 2016 demonstration following the police killing of a black man named Alton Sterling. The police officer, whose identity has not been revealed, claims that Mckesson acted negligently by not foreseeing that the demonstration could become violent.
“The goal of lawsuits like these is to prevent people from showing up at a protest out of the fear that they might be held responsible if anything happens,” Mckesson said in a statement released by the ACLU, which earlier this month asked the Supreme Court to take up the case. “If this precedent lasts, it could make organizers all across the country responsible for all types of things they have no control over, such as random people coming into a protest and causing problems. We can’t let that happen.”
The Supreme Court precedent that protected Trump and that, by all rights, should protect Mckesson is NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., a case decided in 1982. The NAACP in 1966 called for a boycott of white-owned businesses in Claiborne County, Mississippi — a nonviolent form of protest that nevertheless led to some acts of violence. In 1969, several of the business owners sued the NAACP and were successful in the state courts. But the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NAACP could not be held liable for engaging in nonviolent free-speech activities regardless of actions taken by people not under the organization’s control.
Although the cases against Trump and Mckesson, like the case against NAACP, were for alleged civil offenses, it’s also worth noting the high bar the Supreme Court has set for incitement to violence in criminal cases. In the landmark 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the court threw out the conviction of Ku Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg because the threats he made at a rally against African Americans and Jews were non-specific and would not result in imminent violence.
In their petition to the Supreme Court, the ACLU’s lawyers argue that allowing the lawsuit against Mckesson to proceed would have a chilling effect on anyone who might wish to organize a nonviolent protest.
“Given the regularity with which violence and First Amendment activity co-occur and the vagaries of state law liability rules,” the lawyers wrote, “only the most intrepid citizens would exercise their rights and risk ruinous liability if they could be held liable for the wrongful acts of others.”
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, put it this way in the Washington Post story: “If this is allowed to stand, anybody can show up and throw a rock at a protest to bankrupt a movement they disagree with. People know when they step into the street that they might have to spend some hours in jail or pay a fine. But if they might have to pay a multi-million dollar civil judgment — that’s something they’re not prepared for, and can’t possibly be expected to prepare for.”
The case should prove to be a telling indicator of where the Supreme Court stands on free speech now that it has swung sharply to the right. Only four of the nine justices are needed take up the case.
Traditionally, even the court’s more conservative members have proved to be staunch advocates of the First Amendment. But if Trump’s justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were to break with that tradition, the case of DeRay Mckesson v. John Doe could prove to be a signal moment in our march to a less open, less free society.
Want to fight climate change? Tell your elderly relatives to turn off Fox News.
A new survey about global warming by the Pew Research Center provides reasons for optimism. A majority of Americans favors more federal action on environmental issues, including climate change. Most respondents said we should put more emphasis on developing alternative energy sources than on expanding our use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.
But there is one huge caveat: older, conservative respondents aren’t inclined to do much of anything — and many of them continue to believe the fiction that climate change has more to do with natural causes than with human activities.
“A strong majority of liberal Democrats (84%) say human activity contributes a great deal to climate change, with near consensus among them that human activity contributes at least some amount to climate change (96%),” according to the survey report. “In contrast, about half of conservative Republicans (53%) say human activity contributes a great deal (14%) or some (39%) to climate change. Another 45% of this group says humans play not too much or no role in climate change.”
Indifference to doing something about climate change, the survey adds, increases with age — the older the respondents, the less likely they are to want the government to take action.
Although Pew doesn’t say it, these findings coincide perfectly with the demographics of Fox News, which caters to older, conservative viewers. Cable news viewers in general are old — MSNBC, which appeals to liberals, has an even older audience than Fox. But it’s Fox, not MSNBC, that pumps out a steady stream of climate-change denialism and skepticism.
Earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported on findings that showed rejection of climate science among ordinary people is uniquely American — and that Fox News was the likely reason.
Citing survey data, the author, Dana Nuccitelli, wrote that “Republicans who watch Fox News are more than twice as likely to deny human-caused climate change than Republican non-viewers, and 62 percent of Republicans watchFox News.” Nuccitelli added that the data “suggests that the presence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets may be the primary explanation for why climate denial is more prevalent in the United States than in other developed countries.”
Looking for some specifics? In just the past few months, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity has mocked U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for linking the severity of Hurricane Dorion to climate change. Another host, Tucker Carlson, referred to the September climate strike as “adults hoping to exploit children for political purposes.” And Laura Ingraham called climate activism by Greta Thunberg and others “globalist” and “socialism in a new mask.”
It sounds ludicrous. But when your Uncle Bert and Aunt Gertrude watch hours upon hours of this stuff, the effect is to produce a combination of anger, cynicism and inertia that makes it nearly impossible to break through with serious ideas about how to save the planet. And let’s not forget that Fox functions as state television for a president who declared on Twitter in 2012 that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
Nor is there anything new about Fox News viewers believing things that just aren’t true. Last spring, a poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that solid majorities of respondents who get most of their news from Fox believed that President Trump was telling the truth about the Russia investigation. They also said they weren’t worried about future Russian interference in U.S. elections. Half of Fox News viewers believed that the Mueller report had cleared Trump of wrongdoing — even though Mueller drew a virtual road map for the House to impeach Trump on charges that he obstructed the investigation.
Then again, you could go back to the early days of the war in Iraq, when 67% of Fox News viewers believed the falsehood promoted by the Bush-Cheney administration that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with Al Qaeda.
Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that time is running out to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. As one of the two worst polluters (China is the other), the United States has to lead if anything is going to be accomplished. Unfortunately, Trump’s response has been to pull out of the Paris climate-change accords and to torment California for taking action at the state level.
The role of Fox News in preventing serious action on climate change shouldn’t be underestimated. From propping up the Trump presidency to mocking science as a bastion of liberal elitism, Fox is hastening the day when parts of the planet will become uninhabitable.
The Pew survey shows that a majority of Americans wants to do something serious about climate change. It also shows that the same Foxified minority keeping Trump in office is blocking the wishes of the majority. It’s further proof that our media system, like our electoral system, is undermining our democracy.
There are two elephants in the room that are threatening to destroy local news.
One, technological disruption, is widely understood: the internet has undermined the value of advertising and driven it to Craigslist, Facebook and Google, thus eliminating most of the revenues that used to pay for journalism.
But the other, corporate greed, is too often regarded as an effect rather than as a cause. The standard argument is that chain owners moved in to suck the last few drops of blood out of local newspapers because no one else wanted them. In fact, the opposite is the case. Ownership by hedge funds and publicly traded corporations has squeezed newspapers that might otherwise be holding their own and deprived them of the runway they need to invest in the future.
The last several weeks have been brutal for local newspapers. GateHouse Media and Gannett merged (the new company is known simply as Gannett), a union of two bottom-feeding chains that are reported to be considering at least another $400 million in cuts. MediaNews Group, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, acquired a 32% share of the Tribune newspapers. McClatchy may be moving toward bankruptcy.
And yet, here and there, independent community news projects are thriving. Free of the debt that must be taken on to build a chain and of the need to ship revenues to their corporate overlords, the indies — both for-profit and nonprofit — are meeting the information needs of their communities.
The narrative about the death of local journalism is an easy one to grasp, because the tale of technological disruption used to explain it has quite a bit of truth to it, as Lehigh University journalism professor Jeremy Littau wrote in a widely quoted Twitter thread over the weekend. The narrative of the ongoing vitality of local journalism doesn’t get heard often enough because it’s harder to wrap your arms around. It’s happening here and there, with different approaches and without a one-size-fits-all solution.
As such, examples are necessarily anecdotal — and you know the saying that anecdotes aren’t data. Still, good things are happening at the grassroots. For instance:
• The small daily newspaper where I worked for my first 10 years out of college, The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, is still owned by the founding Haggerty family and still providing decent coverage of the communities it serves. The paper is smaller than it used to be, but it’s doing far better work than a typical chain-owned paper.
• Several months ago I had an opportunity to attend the fall conference of the New York Press Association, which comprises upstate independent publishers. Those folks told me that though business was more challenging than ever, their papers were doing reasonably well.
• New Haven, Connecticut, may enjoy the best coverage of any medium-sized city in the country. Why? One veteran journalist, Paul Bass, had the vision to create the nonprofit, online-only New Haven Independent, supported by grants and donations, and still thriving 14 years after its founding. (The Independent is the main subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City.”)
• For-profit digital news sites are doing well in some places, too. Among them: The Batavian, in Western New York, also profiled in “The Wired City.” Overall, there are enough for-profit and nonprofit sites that they have their own trade organization, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers. No, their numbers are too small to offset the overall decline. But the opportunity is out there for entrepreneurial-minded journalists. The chains, sadly, are creating more opportunities every day.
• Among the regions I reported on in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” was Burlington, Vermont, whose daily, the Burlington Free Press, had been decimated by Gannett. What happened? An excellent, for-profit alternative weekly, Seven Days, bolstered its online news coverage. Two nonprofit news organizations, Vermont Public Radio and VT Digger, beefed up their local coverage as well.
• In Western Massachusetts, the once-great Berkshire Eagle is being rebuilt by local owners who bought it from MediaNews Group several years ago. That could provide a roadmap for other communities — at some point, chain owners will no longer be able to keep cutting their way to profits and will presumably be looking for a way out.
• Regional newspapers are experimenting with new forms of ownership. The Salt Lake Tribune recently won IRS approval to become a nonprofit organization. The Philadelphia Inquirer, though still a for-profit, is now owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Foundation. Neither of these moves guarantees salvation. But it has bought them time to shift to a new business model built less on advertising and more on support from their readers.
• Speaking of which: It’s been nearly a year since The Boston Globe announced it had achieved profitability despite continuing to employ a newsroom far larger than any chain owner would tolerate.
No, there is little hope of returning to the old days. Newspapers will never be as richly staffed as they were before the early 2000s, when the internet began to take a toll on revenues. Papers will continue to die. Nonprofits will have to become an increasingly important part of the mix.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote the other day that “the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.”
She’s right. But in all too many instances, local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered. The solution, if there is to be one, has to start with getting the corporate chains out of the way and paving a path for a new generation of independent publishers.
For observers of the media, there are few spectacles more dispiriting than the way the press covers presidential campaigns. Rather than digging into what really matters, such as the candidates’ experience, leadership ability and positions on important issues, reporters focus on controversies, attacks on one another, gotcha moments and, of course, polls, polls and more polls.
Now a study conducted by the School of Journalism at Northeastern University has quantified just how bad things are. Looking at about 10,000 news articles from 28 ideologically diverse news outlets published between March and October, my colleagues and I found that coverage of the Democratic candidates “tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items.”
Our findings were posted last week at Storybench, a vertical published by the School of Journalism that covers media innovation. The data analysis was performed by Aleszu Bajak with an assist from John Wihbey. Among the key points in our report:
• The televised debates have driven some of the issues-based coverage. For instance, mentions of the candidates’ positions on immigration and health care increased during and immediately after the debates but then quickly subsided.
• Kirsten Gillibrand made reproductive choice one of her signature issues — and after she dropped out of the race, that issue faded from media coverage. Similarly, coverage of gun control was tied mainly to Beto O’Rourke’s now-defunct campaign. LGBTQ rights and climate change have been virtually ignored.
• The Ukraine story has dominated recently coverage of the Democratic candidates, with much of it focused on President Trump’s false accusations that Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden acted corruptly.
Of course, to some extent the media can’t help but be reactive. It would be irresponsible not to cover what the candidates are saying about themselves and each other. But the press’ urge to chase controversies at the expense of more substantive matters shows that little has been learned since its disastrous performance four years ago.
As Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy wrote in an analysis of the 2016 campaign, coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was unrelentingly negative, creating the impression that the controversy over Clinton’s emails was somehow equivalent to massive corruption at Trump’s charitable foundation, his racist remarks and his boasting about sexual assault as revealed on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
“The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal,” Patterson wrote. “Its bias is a decided preference for the negative.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Earlier this year, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen proposed campaign coverage built around a “citizens agenda.” Rosen proposed that news organizations should identify their audience, listen to what they believe the candidates should be focusing on, and cover the race accordingly.
“Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda,” Rosen wrote on his influential blog, Press Think. “And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm.”
Some coverage of presidential politics has been quite good. Quality news organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have published in-depth articles on challenges the candidates have overcome and how that helps shape their approach to governing. The Boston Globe has been running a series called “Back to the Battleground” in which it has reported on four key states that unexpectedly went with Trump in 2016. Reports aimed at making sense of the Ukraine story, explaining Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan and the like are worthy examples of campaign journalism aimed at informing the public. But such efforts tend to be overshadowed by day-to-day horse-race coverage.
The latest poll-driven narrative is the rise of Pete Buttigieg, who’s emerged as the clear frontrunner in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey. You can be sure that he’ll be watched closely at this week’s televised debate. Will his rivals attack him? Will he fight back? Can he take the heat?
Little of it will have much to do with what kind of president Buttigieg or any of the other candidates would be. The horse race is paramount. Who’s up, who’s down and the latest controversies are what matter to the political press.
The data my Northeastern colleagues have compiled provides a measurement of how badly political coverage has run off the rails. What’s needed is a commitment on the part of the media to do a better job of serving the public interest.
Where are all the women? For those of us who’ve spent much of our lives working in newsrooms, it’s a question that has no good answer. As far back as the 1970s, when I was in journalism school, women outnumbered men in the classroom by a substantial margin — a phenomenon that, if anything, has become even more pronounced. Yet at news organizations everywhere, men predominate. And that is especially true in leadership positions.
Now two longtime journalists have written a book aimed at explaining that imbalance and, more important, offering case studies and advice for young women seeking to survive and thrive.“There’s No Crying in Newsrooms: What Women Have Learned about What It Takes to Lead,” by Kristin Grady Gilger and Julia Wallace (Rowman & Littlefield, 216 pages, $32), ought to be required reading for journalism students (as it is for my ethics class at Northeastern) — and not just for women but also for men, who need to understand the obstacles that women face.
Gilger andWallace are colleagues in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. More to the point, they both helped blaze a trail for women who seek to move up into the highest ranks of journalism. Wallace was the first woman to serve as editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gilger worked in top editing positions at The Arizona Republic, The Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
“There’s No Crying in Newsrooms” comprises a series of chapters on the challenges that women must deal with, from proving their worth to pay equity, from sexual harassment to finding the right balance between work and life — something that ought to be taken as a given for journalists of any gender, but whose burden still falls more heavily on women. Each chapter ends with a personal essay and advice from one of the two authors, giving it the feel of a how-to book.
How bad can it get? According to Gilger and Wallace, “When one female reporter who covered health asked for a raise, the metro editor replied, ‘Your husband is a dentist. What are you worried about?’”
Among the many fascinating case studies (Gilger and Wallace interviewed more than 100 women) are those of Marcy McGinnis, who rose from working as a secretary at CBS News to senior vice president of news, and Wanda Lloyd, an African American journalist who was raised in the South during segregation and served for more than eight years in Alabama as executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.
Lloyd’s story is especially poignant. In an effort to make the Advertiser more welcoming to African American readers, Lloyd banished front-page mug shots of black men and ended the annual practice of photographing a birthday cake for Robert E. Lee Those initiatives were not always supported by the paper’s white readers — and Gilger and Wallace write about a moment after one of those readers complained that the Advertiser was giving too much coverage to African Americans.
“I had never in my life lost it like that before,” Lloyd is quoted as saying. “I sobbed uncontrollably for at least five minutes. My whole body was shaking. I just had never encountered anything like that. I had encountered racism all my life, but this racism was directed directly at me as an employee, as a journalist, as a person. Later, I was surprised they didn’t call an ambulance for me; that’s how bad it was.”
The Advertiser is a Gannett paper, and Gilger and Wallace go out of their way to praise the company’s late chief executive Al Neuharth for his commitment to diversity; both authors worked for Gannett at various times. Neuharth believed that appointing more women and people of color to leadership positions would broaden his papers’ audience.
Which leads to my only complaint about “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms.” The Neuharth years were profitable ones for Gannett — very profitable. As the late Ben Bagidikian documented in his oft-updated book“The Media Monopoly,” Gannett’s papers regularly ran up profits of 30% to 50%, margins that are wildly incompatible with quality journalism. When the bad times came, Gannett, like other chain owners, failed to invest in the future.
Today, Gannett is about to merge with GateHouse Media, another cost-slashing chain, while its Newseum is on the verge of closing. I don’t doubt Neuharth’s sincerity with regard to diversity. I just wish Gilger and Wallace had at least made a mention of Gannett’s role in the decline of the newspaper business — brought about by larger forces, to be sure, but worsened by corporate greed.
The authors devote a chapter to Jill Abramson, the first executive editor of The New York Times, who was fired by then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. under circumstances that have never been adequately explained. Gilger and Wallace come to roughly the same conclusion that Abramson herself did in her book“Merchants of Truth” — that is, it was a combination of sexism and her own shortcomings as a manager and a leader.
They also offer this choice tidbit about Abramson: “During one meeting, she pointed out that the headline on a story posted on the Times’ website was incorrect. When the editor responsible for the page didn’t get up immediately to fix it, Abramson asked him what he was still doing in the room.” If I were Sulzberger, I’d have been tempted to make her editor for life just for that.
The book ends on something of a down note, as the authors observe that, as of 2018, “women in media held fewer positions of power, were promoted more slowly, and made less money than their male counterparts.” Women in the news media also continue to deal with bad behavior in the workplace, ranging from disrespect to sexual harassment and assault.
Ultimately, though, Gilger and Wallace argue that the fight is worth it — that journalism and democracy are better served if newsrooms more closely reflect the broader culture. I hope this book is read not just by aspiring journalists but by newsroom leaders as well. A problem can’t be solved unless it’s first understood, and “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms” explains it well.