Why Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media was met mainly with applause

Roman Catholic church in Sri Lanka. Photo (cc) 2010 by Ronald Saunders.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Eight years ago, Western observers were appalled when then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cut off internet access in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings. Back then, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media were seen as tools of liberation, empowering ordinary citizens to stand up against the forces of repression.

Alec Ross, a top aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, went so far as to call the internet “the Che Guevara of the 21st century,” enthusing: “Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part — but not entirely — because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.”

What a long, ugly trip it has been since those hopeful days. How bad has it gotten? When the Sri Lankan government shut down Facebook and other social platforms following Sunday’s deadly terrorist attacks on churches and hotels, many people applauded, citing social media’s seemingly unlimited potential to spread dangerous rumors and incite more violence. Leading the charge was Kara Swisher, a longtime technology journalist who now writes a column for The New York Times.

“It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off,” Swisher wrote. “But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.”

Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, a project founded at Harvard Law School for the express purpose of giving a voice to citizen journalists across the world, took to Twitter to praise Sri Lanka’s action, as noted by CNN. “A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat,” said Sigal. “#facebook your house is not in order.”

Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot since those heady days when we believed that social media would bring people together, leading to a utopian world community overflowing with peace, love, and understanding. The dark side has become ever more prevalent in recent years as Facebook and its ilk have fostered the rise of right-wing populism from the Philippines to Hungary, from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Sometimes it’s because bad actors have manipulated the platforms, as the Russians did during the 2016 U.S. election — or, more tragically, as the military in Myanmar did in whipping up genocidal violence against that country’s Muslim minority. Sometimes it’s because the platforms work exactly the way they’re supposed to. Facebook, with its 2.3 billion active monthly users, relies on algorithms that keep those users online and engaged — and the most effective way to do that is to serve up content that appeals to their sense of outrage and grievance.

In his book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is naive and idealistic rather than deliberately destructive — but that makes him no less nefarious an actor. “Mark Zuckerberg is profoundly uneducated,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion. But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

As BuzzFeed News noted, not everyone applauded the Sri Lankan government’s social shutdown. Some pointed out that Facebook and other platforms are among the few means that ordinary people have to stay in touch with their friends and family members and to check on their safety. Others said that the privileged (not to mention the terrorists themselves) would not be affected, as they could simply use a VPN — that is, a virtual private network — to get around the censorship decree.

“Curbing civil liberties and civil rights doesn’t make people more safe,” Allie Funk of the nonprofit organization Freedom House told Wired. “These are societal issues that are going to take long-term solutions.”

Facebook itself said in a statement: “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and to helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”

CNN’s daily media newsletter asked: “Have we really reached a moment where a government being able to shut down the world’s most important social media platforms is better than having the platforms up and running after a terrorist attack, misinformation and all?”

It would appear that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it is better. Simply put, social media, and especially Facebook, have not just failed to live up to their promise — they’ve been a detriment across the world, undermining democracy, stirring up hatred, and costing lives.

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No reason for BuzzFeed to apologize for that explosive Michael Cohen story

I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.

At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:

While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:

On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.

Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.

BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].

My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.

Earlier: “Making Sense of the BuzzFeed Bombshell — and What, If Anything, Went Wrong” (WGBH News, Jan. 23).

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Pulitzer notes: Why does Murdoch allow his Wall Street Journal to torment Trump?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

During the past two months, major investigative articles in The New YorkerThe New York Times Magazine, and The Intercept have been published about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and how it has fused with right-wing populist governments on three continents — including President Trump’s administration in the United States — in order to enhance his family’s power and wealth.

So it’s no small irony that, on Monday, the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded to Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal for exposing the hush money that Trump paid to Stephanie Clifford (better known as Stormy Daniels) and Karen McDougal. As the Pulitzer announcement put it, the award was “for uncovering President Trump’s secret payoffs to two women during his campaign who claimed to have had affairs with him, and the web of supporters who facilitated the transactions, triggering criminal inquiries and calls for impeachment.”

At least to this point, the Journal’s reporting has created more of a legal minefield for the president than has special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — although that may change when the redacted version of the Mueller report is released later this week. Thus it’s worth pondering why Murdoch, who has transformed the Fox News Channel into a full-throated propaganda vehicle for Trump and his hateful utterances, has nevertheless maintained the Journal’s excellence during his decade-plus of ownership.

My guesses: The Journal gives Murdoch a cachet he otherwise wouldn’t have; and he knows that a high-brow newspaper has nowhere near the power to mold public opinion as does a top-rated cable network whose hosts endorse and amplify Trump’s fact-free rhetoric. The Journal’s reporting may create problems for Trump — but nothing that can’t be drowned out by the likes of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

One other Trump-related note: The New York Times won the Explanatory Reporting award for its massive investigation into Trump’s false claims that he became wealthy as a result of his own efforts as well for reporting about his family’s reliance on a wide variety of tax-avoidance schemes.

***

Trump and Murdoch aside, you couldn’t look over the list of Pulitzer winners without feeling profound sadness. There was the Special Citation for the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, whose journalists kept reporting after five of its employees were killed by a gunman last June. There was the Breaking News Reporting Award that went to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in October.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel won the most prestigious of the Pulitzers, for Public Service, “for exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.” The Washington Post was a finalist in that same category for its reporting on the killing of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently at the hands of the Saudi regime.

As Andrew McCormick of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy also took note in her remarks of obituaries published by The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness, even in the most wrenching of circumstances,” Canedy said. And as McCormick observed, “It was, unfortunately, the theme of Canedy’s remarks and of the 103rd iteration of the prizes this year: the rising tide of violence in the country, which journalists have had to cover and of which they have become targets themselves.”

***

A few other Pulitzer notes:

• Boston Globe photographer Craig Walker, a two-time Pulitzer winner, was a finalist in Feature Photography for his work documenting the life of Connor Biscan, the subject of “Raising Connor,” a boy struggling with autism and other issues. The photos and accompanying story, by Liz Kowalczyk, were published in the Globe last May.

• The late Aretha Franklin was awarded a Special Citation “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.” The prize was more than well-deserved, but it’s a shame that the Pulitzer board decided to wait until Franklin was no longer around to enjoy it. Quite simply, she was one of the greatest musicians of the past 75 years.

• I had already planned, with some trepidation, to take on David W. Blight’s monumental (912 pages) “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” So I was pleased to see that it won the Pulitzer for History.

• The full list of Pulitzers is deep and impressive, and I have left out more than I’ve included. Please take a look at the best in journalism and the arts in 2018.

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About that pissy column in (and out of) The Boston Globe

In case you missed it, “Beat the Press” last Friday took on The Boston Globe’s twice-edited, thrice-published, once-deleted column by freelancer Luke O’Neil in which he initially wrote, “One of the biggest regrets in my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon.” Also, interim editorial-page editor Shirley Leung spoke with “Boston Public Radio” and O’Neil gave an interview to WGBH News.

To me, the puzzle is how this ever got published in the first place. If that obvious lapse could have been avoided, not only would the Globe have spared itself quite a bit of embarrassment, but O’Neil wouldn’t have been hung out to dry on social media. O’Neil doesn’t exactly seem contrite, so maybe he thinks this has all been good for the brand.

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How Murdoch family politics shape the Fox News dystopia

WGBH News graphic by Emily Judem.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The New York Times Magazine’s massive 20,000-word takeout on the Murdoch media empire is what you might call a conceptual scoop. There is little in the way of new information, although the sheer accumulation of insider details and tantalizing tidbits is fascinating in its own way. But the real accomplishment of “Planet Fox” is that it helps us understand the Murdoch project as a coherent whole in all of its cynical, transnational, intrafamilial awfulness.

What does that coherent whole look like? Essentially this: For decades, Rupert Murdoch has built his media conglomerate in order to enhance his political power for the sole benefit of himself and his children. His method is based on synergy — that is, his control of more and more media entities wouldn’t be possible unless government officials bestowed deregulatory favors upon him, and those favors become easier for him to extract as his ever-growing control of the media makes those officials fear the consequences of saying no. His support for political figures who’ll give him what he wants has helped fuel the rise of right-wing xenophobic populism in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, all of which are suffering the consequences of the chaos that Murdoch unleashed.

There must be something in the air, as this is the third major Murdoch investigation to be published in recent weeks. Last month The New Yorker gave us Jane Mayer’s examination of the Fox-Trump mind meld, which I wrote about in an earlier column. More recently, The Intercept’s Peter Maass weighed in with a profile of Lachlan Murdoch, the heir apparent, and how he devolved from an idealistic Princeton student into one of the world’s most influential white nationalists. The Times’ contribution is to make an attempt at tying it all together.

The Times has gone all out to signal that “Planet Fox” is A Major Event. The reporters, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, are said to have interviewed 150 people on three continents. The story takes up most of the print magazine and has been tricked out with a vibrant digital presentation, a 14-minute video, and a “6 Takeaways” sidebar.

Will it matter? Eight years ago, it actually looked for one brief moment as if Murdoch’s world might come crashing down. The phone-hacking scandal perpetrated by his tabloids threatened his U.K. holdings and seemed like it might make the leap to the U.S. In the end, though, it fizzled, as Guardian reporter Nick Davies wrote in his book “Hack Attack.” The actual effect of “Planet Fox” is likely to be even more modest. You can be sure that Fox News’ marquee hosts, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham, will simply dismiss the whole thing as “fake news” — that is, if they mention it at all.

There is, by the way, a delightful anecdote about Hannity buried in the Times article. It seems that Hannity is too much of a toady even for President Trump’s tastes. Mahler and Rutenberg write: “Trump was also spending a lot of time on the phone with Hannity, who regularly called the president after his show. Trump had often found him to be too much of a supplicant for his purposes: He preferred his more combative interviews with Bill O’Reilly, which he felt better showcased his pugnaciousness, according to a former White House official. But Trump appreciated Hannity’s loyalty.” You can just imagine Hannity wincing as he reads those words.

The story of how Murdoch initially spurned Trump and then embraced him when it became clear that Trump was going to win the Republican presidential nomination is fascinating. That episode also traces the arc of Fox News’ transformation from a combative, conservative network at least occasionally tethered to the facts, as conceived by the late Republican operative Roger Ailes, into what it is today: a propaganda arm of the Trump administration that spews lies and conspiracy theories without regard for the public good.

Writing in The Conversation, Michael Socolow of the University of Maine argues that Murdoch’s influence has been exaggerated. Fox News’ 2.4 million prime-time viewers, Socolow observes, “means that 99.3 percent of Americans weren’t watching Fox News on any given night.” But surely the Fox effect is at least partly responsible for Trump’s enduring popularity with Republican base voters. And even if the Murdoch-controlled media are not quite as influential as they are often portrayed, it is well worth exploring the nexus of racism, corruption, and political machinations that define how the “rotten old bastard,” as the media critic Jack Shafer semi-affectionally calls Murdoch, does business.

One especially chilling detail in “Planet Fox” involves Murdoch’s seemingly endless quest to acquire Britain’s Sky network. It turns out that several of Fox’s rare acts of decency — getting rid of Bill O’Reilly over sexual-harassment accusations and ordering Hannity to stop peddling wild conspiracy theories over the death of former Democratic operative Seth Rich — were rooted solely in Murdoch’s need to impress British regulatory officials that he was sufficiently ethical to run Sky.

It gets worse. We learn that Murdoch may have used his influence to pass Brexit because, as he allegedly told one interviewer, “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice.” The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid, was instrumental in the Brexit victory and all the tumult that has resulted. Regulatory actions taken by the Trump administration all went Murdoch’s way, as Jane Mayer reported in her New Yorker piece. We learn, too, that Murdoch’s son Lachlan took the family’s Australian cable station in a Fox-like right-wing direction, and that its relentless anti-Muslim rants may have been a factor in the recent massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Two high-profile Muslim employees, one in Australia and one in the U.S., quit — one of them in 2017, although he’s speaking out now.

“Planet Fox” is not perfect. There’s a minor error involving Murdoch’s ownership of the Boston Herald. I’d have liked to hear at least a theory as to why Murdoch has maintained The Wall Street Journal as one of our great newspapers. Mahler and Rutenberg also note without comment the rise of right-wing populism in Murdoch-free zones such as Hungary, Austria, and the Philippines. In fact, many observers believe Facebook, not Fox, is the force that’s driving much of the world toward intolerance and authoritarianism — yet the Zuckerborg receives not a mention. Still, the Times has produced a comprehensive and convincing account of the carnage wrought by Murdoch and his family.

Is there hope? Murdoch is 88, so it’s hardly ghoulish to observe that he will probably not live forever. Indeed, “Planet Fox” opens and closes with a description of how he nearly departed this vale of tears in early 2018. Unfortunately, it seems that Lachlan, the more insular and right-wing of his two sons, has gained ascendancy while James, more liberal and cosmopolitan, has been pushed out. As befits a patriarchal monarchy, Murdoch’s two daughters, Prudence and Elisabeth, don’t factor into any of this.

As the story ends, we see Rupert and Lachlan riding herd over a smaller company, shorn of its entertainment assets following the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, waging endless war on three continents. Nothing lasts forever, of course. But it appears that we still have a few chapters to slog through before the end of the Murdoch story at long last comes into view.

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What is local news? That new Pew report raises some fundamental questions.

Photo (cc) 2005 by by Chris.

Previously published at WGBH News.

What is local news? A new report by the Pew Research Center claims to measure Americans’ perceptions of journalism in their communities. But the results show that the largest share of the 35,000 people who were surveyed — 38 percent — say their medium of choice is television.

Moreover, the kinds of news that respondents say are “important for daily life” are an exact match for the typical fare of a local TV newscast. Coming in first was weather (70 percent), followed by crime (44 percent), traffic and transportation (41 percent), and news about changing prices (37 percent). The fifth-most-cited topic, government and politics, was far behind at 24 percent. (The survey includes a wicked cool interactive on how people are consuming local news in different parts of the country, including Boston.)

Reaction to the Pew survey has focused mainly on the fact that 71 percent of respondents seem to think their local news outlets are doing just fine financially, with only 14 percent saying they’ve paid for local news during the past year. “These findings unnerved those who believe that local news is hugely important in our culture and that it needs public support to survive,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. She quoted David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, as saying, “I found the survey results to be really sad and disturbing.”

Sullivan and Chavern are right if you’re talking about the sort of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves. But that’s not really what Pew measured. To me, the more disturbing finding isn’t that those surveyed misperceive the financial crisis facing local journalism — it’s that they don’t understand what local journalism is. In fact, as Laura Hazard Owen pointed out at the Nieman Lab, local TV news is doing OK financially, at least in comparison to newspapers. But the mission of TV news isn’t really local. It’s regional.

I have not come to bash the newscasts offered by the Boston television stations and similar newscasts around the country. They perform a service. There’s no reason to be snobbish about a roundup of breaking news, the weather, sports (even though it did poorly in the survey), and the odd waterskiing squirrel or two.

Yes, TV newscasts should offer more political, governmental, and investigative reporting than they do. (My Northeastern colleagues John Wihbey and Mike Beaudet are studying how to improve local TV news in advance of the 2020 elections.) But it’s not their job to cover the routine occurrences of community life — that is, what’s going on at city or town hall, schools, police, fire, and why isn’t anyone fixing that huge pothole on Main Street? Nor is such news in the wheelhouse of city dailies such as The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, or of public broadcasters such as WBUR or WGBH. Rather, community news is uniquely the purview of local newspapers and, in a few places, various types of digital startups. And that is precisely where the crisis in journalism is unfolding.

Let’s go back to the Pew survey. About half of those who responded, or 47 percent, said the local news they get “mostly covers an area other than where they live such as a nearby city” (my emphasis). A slightly higher proportion, 51 percent, said their local news “mostly covers their living area.” Those findings correlate with how satisfied people are with the local news they consume, with higher percentages of those who believe their news has more of a local focus reporting that the news is accurate, thorough, and fair.

Needless to say, small daily and weekly papers are the source of most local news. But only 17 percent of survey respondents said they “often” get local news from daily papers, and a minuscule 7 percent get it from non-daily papers. Even though many papers have been eviscerated because of changing market forces and the depredations of corporate chain ownership, they still stand out as the main source of news about what’s going on at the community and neighborhood level. (In Massachusetts, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, has proposed a special commission to study the state of local news, an effort I’m involved in.)

We often hear about the need for media literacy, and who could oppose it? Last November, though, I wrote that we actually need civic literacy first. People aren’t reading newspapers or visiting community websites because they don’t understand that what’s in them affects their lives and those of their neighbors.

What we need is to rebuild the infrastructure for local news and to educate the public about why it matters. Recently the Knight Foundation announced a $300 million, five-year investment for “reimagining local news, funding tested solutions, experiments and basic research,” according topresident and chief executive Alberto Ibargüen.

“Local news is the foundation of American democracy,” Ibargüen wrote. “But it’s in crisis. Internet platforms have decimated their business model. The past 15 years have been marked by layoffs and shutdowns, leaving swaths of the country without a broad and common baseline of shared information. When there is no agreement on fundamental facts, misinformation and disinformation proliferates, coursing through social media and search platforms, further eroding our trust in media and in each other.”

Maybe the most disturbing aspect of the Pew report was that it measured the wrong thing, because the people who were surveyed didn’t know any better. That’s not their fault. It’s ours. In effect, our own poor efforts are being reflected back at us. So what are we going to do about it?

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Long-overdue calls to abolish the Electoral College are finally being heard

What do Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Donald Trump have in common?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The movement to get rid of the Electoral College is having a moment. For the past several weeks, pundits and politicians alike have renewed calls to do away with this 18th-century anachronism and award the presidency to the candidate who wins the most votes.

With Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report dealing a powerful blow to the always-unlikely scenario that Congress would impeach President Trump and remove him from office, the call for Electoral College abolition is likely to grow louder. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has made it a centerpiece of her campaign. Her competitors Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg agree, while Kamala Harris is leaning in that direction as well.

Buttigieg wrote in a recent commentary for CNN.com that “we need to re-evaluate the role of the Electoral College, which has — in my short lifetime — overruled the popular vote twice. It should be a commonsense position that the person who gets the most votes is the person who wins the presidency.”

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has been especially thoughtful on the topic, nothing that former Maine governor Paul LePage had it exactly right when he complained recently that doing away with the Electoral College would diminish the power of white supremacy. (OK, the notoriously racist LePage didn’t put it quite that way.)

As Bouie argued, and as I wrote here more than two years ago, the Electoral College came about as a way to grant disproportionate power to the slave states of the South so that they would agree to ratify the Constitution. How? Let’s look at the numbers. Each state gets an electoral vote for every House member, plus two bonus votes for their senators. Before the Civil War, the slave states received an artificial — and morally reprehensible — boost in House and Electoral College representation because each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining the number of that state’s House seats. That advantage disappeared after the Civil War, but the two extra votes for senators continue to give states with the lowest population disproportionate power. For instance, in 2016 voters in tiny Wyoming had nearly four times as much influence as those in California.

There are some myths surrounding the Electoral College that need to be put to rest. One is that the founders favored it because they opposed direct democracy. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby uncorked that one recently, writing, “The framers of the Constitution devised it deliberately as a check on direct democracy” because they did not want “important national decisions to be driven by unbridled public emotion, populist demagoguery, or the passions of the mob.”

There may have been something to that in the early days of the republic. But the problem with this theory today is that the reality is exactly the opposite of what Jacoby describes. In fact, the president is elected via direct democracy. The electors in each state are not free to exercise their independent judgment and stand fast against “the passions of the mob.” In many cases it is actually illegal for electors to oppose the will of their state’s voters. Not that there’s much chance of that happening given that they are chosen because they’re party loyalists. So we end up with the worst of both worlds — direct democracy, but distorted to favor rural states over the places where people actually live.

Another fallacy is that we’ve always lived with the reality of the Electoral College, candidates have always understood that they need to build a broad coalition of states, and that popular-vote winners who lose in the electoral count have no one but themselves to blame.

Unlike the direct-democracy argument, there is a little bit of truth to this one. “In the Trump era, Democrats are in a perpetual state of panic,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote recently in Politico. “They should remember that the electoral map is always changing. Before 2016, it was thought the Electoral College favored Democrats. It shouldn’t be beyond their conceiving that they can win again under the long-established rules of America’s foundational governing document.”

But here’s the problem with that argument:Before George W. Bush’s narrow, controversial victory over Al Gore in 2000, the last time a candidate became president despite losing the popular vote was 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland, the incumbent Democrat.

That’s 112 years. Surely the public could be forgiven for thinking that the Electoral College — to the extent that they thought about it at all — was some vestigial appendage from the past that they need not worry about. Now, thanks to shifting population patterns, any Democratic candidate starts out with a disadvantage because so many liberal voters now live in a few blue, underrepresented bastions such as New York, California, and Massachusetts.

So what are we going to do about this miserable state of affairs? One possible solution is an interstate compact being pushed by an organization called National Popular Vote, which would require each state’s electors to support the candidate who won the most votes nationwide. But this strikes me as a fool’s mission, as there is no more incentive for small states to join the compact than there would be for them to support a constitutional amendment to do away with the Electoral College altogether.

And, of course, a popular, broad-based campaign can win both a majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College, thus putting the issue on the backburner. Barack Obama did it twice. So did Ronald Reagan.

Ultimately, though, we need to come to a consensus that nothing good comes of a presidency that was flawed right from the start by losing the popular vote. Bush was unable to unite the country except for a brief moment after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Trump’s problems hardly need to be laid out here. But doing something about the Electoral College will require a bigger politics than we have at the moment. I’ll choose to be optimistic and hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future we can embrace something better.

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How Beto O’Rourke quickly lost his status as the media’s favorite slacker

Beto O’Rourke. Photo (cc) 2018 by Steve Standeford

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Betomania had somehow eluded me. And so when I set out to write about how the media have reacted to the launch of Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, my first plan was to criticize the elevation of yet another celebrity candidate over his more substantive but less magnetic rivals.

That’s not how it’s worked out. Yes, there was the 8,800-word Vanity Fair profile by Joe Hagan, accompanied by an Annie Leibovitz cover shot of O’Rourke standing by what I assume is his pick-up truck, with archetypal dirt road, hills, and dog in the background. But that proved to be an exception.

“It is a well put-together, if unsubtle, piece of propaganda, and it should be read by anyone looking to learn the art of the puff piece,” wrote Nathan J. Robinson at the website of the left-wing magazine Current Affairs. Personally, I didn’t think it was that gushing; certainly it was spritely and readable, but it also included some harsh passages about O’Rourke’s drunken-driving arrest years ago and his alliance with the white Republican power structure during his early days in El Paso politics. But as substantive political pieces go, well, there was a lot about his youth as a punk rocker.

After O’Rourke made his candidacy official last Thursday, though, the tide quickly turned, at least according to my shockingly unscientific survey of media coverage. Yes, his record one-day online fundraising haul of $6.1 million was duly noted. But so was a less-than-woke comment he made about how he sees his role as a father and a husband — a danger zone given that his rivals for the presidency include a number of well-qualified women. Matt Viser of The Washington Post tweeted the details:

That was followed by criticism both serious and silly. On the serious side, Josh Marshall of the liberal website Talking Points Memo called O’Rourke’s rollout “A Bad Day for Beto,” arguing that O’Rourke’s early support has come from centrist elements of the Democratic Party — and that’s not where the energy is. “The Democratic nominee is not going to be the factional candidate of Democratic centrists,” Marshall wrote, adding that O’Rourke had, to his detriment, “made a good start toward becoming that guy.”

Hanna Trudo of National Journal (and, ahem, a former student of mine) offered a similar point on the podcast “Quorum Call,” suggesting that O’Rourke may have a problem running as a moderate during a year when Democrats seem to want someone more progressive. “He’s to the right of nearly every other candidate aside from Biden, I would say,” Trudo said of O’Rourke. “He’s far to the right of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or even Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. He’s voted for Republican policies more often than most Democrats running.”

In contrast with Marshall and Trudo, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd offered a snark-filled update of her dreadful columns referring to Barack Obama as “The One.” And yes, it seems indisputably true that O’Rourke, like Obama, has a healthy ego and a sense of destiny that may or may not be shared by Democratic primary voters. But there’s really no excuse for Dowdian drivel like this: “We have The One again, a New One — another lanky, bookish, handsome man with an attractive young family, a thin résumé, an exotic name, a hip affect, a rock star aura, an enticing smile, a liberal press corps ready to fluff his pillows and a frothing Fox News.” As Charles Pierce of Esquire tweeted, “I was reading this but my laptop floated to the ceiling.”

So what is going on? I think part of it is that candidates never look as good as they do the day before they announce — and that O’Rourke, who was already a political celebrity, was bound to come in for more of a thrashing than a lower-profile politician might. The pundits may also be having second thoughts about O’Rourke’s loss in the Texas Senate race last year to Ted Cruz. No doubt O’Rourke deserves credit for coming within three points in a state where Republicans have a virtual stranglehold. But good grief, Ted Cruz.

And questions about whether O’Rourke is too white, too male, and too moderate for Democrats in 2020 are perfectly legitimate — notwithstanding the reality that Bernie Sanders and the still-unannounced (or should I say semi-unannounced) Joe Biden sit atop the Iowa polls, for whatever that’s worth at this early stage of the campaign.

More than anything, though, O’Rourke’s self-regard puts him in danger of becoming the most easily mockable Democratic candidate, especially since he doesn’t have a concrete issues agenda to fall back on. “I want to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair’s Hagan. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”

I’m just born to be in it. It’s a comment that a number of women have picked up on, and not in a good way. Writing at Vox, Laura McGann called out the double standard of a man making a comment that would be deadly if a woman said it, adding, “Men are rewarded in politics for showing ambition, while women are punished.” McGann is right, except that in 2019 the sense of entitlement in O’Rourke’s remark didn’t seem to make a good impression on anyone.

That old war criminal Henry Kissinger supposedly liked to joke that the infighting in academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low. In Campaign 2020, it’s just the opposite: Democrats and other voters in the anti-Trump coalition are so determined to win that every remark, every gesture is being held to an impossibly high level of scrutiny. And the infighting is going to be vicious.

Whether O’Rourke’s toothy, charismatic, hazy-on-the-issues appeal will have staying power is months away from being put to the test. The criticism has already reached the unserious stage, as Fox News is pillorying Reuters for sitting on a story about O’Rourke’s youthful exploits as a computer hacker on the grounds that the reporter was supposedly trying to help him beat Cruz. If nothing else, it’s a sign that if O’Rourke and his supporters were assuming that the media would be on their side, they may be in for an unpleasant encounter with reality.

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From principled conservative to Bubba the Love Sponge: The devolution of Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tucker Carlson may have finally hit bottom. Then again, maybe not. If Fox News fails to act after Carlson was exposed over the weekend for making insanely misogynist comments on a low-rent radio show between 2006 and 2011, then he will probably continue on his merry way, indulging in sexism and racism on what might be the worst prime-time program on cable news.

A brief synopsis. During the period in question, Carlson made weekly on-air calls to a show hosted by Bubba the Love Sponge, whose name you may vaguely recall from Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit against Gawker Media. Mrs. Sponge, as we shall call Bubba’s ex-wife, was videotaped having sex with Hogan, and Gawker published it. That, in turn, led to the demise of Gawker at the hands of Hogan’s lawyer and his secret financier, the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who had his own axe to grind against the company.

Anyway, Carlson’s appearances on Bubba’s show were sort of like his Fox News program, only cruder and much more disturbing. Madeline Peltz of Media Matters for America, a liberal media-watch organization, has gone through many hours of audio in which Carlson defended statutory rape, used the C-word, and, as Peltz put it, “called journalist Arianna Huffington a ‘pig,’ and labeled Britney Spears and Paris Hilton ‘the biggest white whores in America.’ He also said that women enjoy being told to ‘be quiet and kind of do what you’re told’ and that they are ‘extremely primitive.’” The story includes audio clips and extensive transcripts. Carlson doesn’t deny it. More was posted Monday night, with the new cache consisting of what Media Matters calls “white nationalist rhetoric” and “racist remarks.”

The revelations about Carlson were the worst news for Fox News in, oh, about a week. Last week brought us Jane Mayer’s New Yorker story detailing the multifarious ways in which Fox now functions as President Trump’s chief propaganda arm, as well as weekend host Jeanine Pirro’s assertion that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab is somehow a violation of the Constitution. (Fox condemned those remarks.)

Now, forgive me for taking a detour, because I want to talk about an earlier, better version of Tucker Carlson. To my mind, one of the stranger and more disheartening developments in conservative media in recent years has been Carlson’s devolution from a stylish writer of smart magazine pieces to a ranting racist and misogynist.

My first exposure to Carlson came in September 1995, when The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine founded by Bill Kristol and funded by Rupert Murdoch, made its debut. Back then I was the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix. I took a look at the Standard’s first issue and pronounced most of it to be a snooze. The exception was an amusing piece by Carlson, who contacted various celebrities about a petition they’d signed calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, then facing the death penalty after he was convicted of murdering a police officer. Carlson innocently asked his targets what they actually knew about the case, which turned out to be not much.

After that, Carlson was someone I checked in with from time to time. I admired a long profile he wrote for Tina Brown’s Talk magazine of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, whom he depicted as cruelly mocking Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer and born-again Christian he’d sent to her death when he was governor of Texas. On one of my visits to Washington around the same time, Carlson took me to lunch at The Palm. He was utterly charming. The only disconcerting note was when he genially berated me for not keeping a gun at home in order to protect my family.

I should add that many people have had similar experiences with Carlson. Last fall Lyz Lenz wrote a long profile of Carlson for the Columbia Journalism Review in which she quoted a number of editors and others who worked with Carlson back in the day and who can’t believe how far he’s fallen — fallen being a term of art, of course, given that he’s never been more prominent or highly compensated than he is right now.

“What happened to Tucker Carlson?,” Lenz wrote. “People in media ask themselves this question with the same pearl-clutching, righteous tone they use when discussing their aunt in Connecticut who voted for Trump.”

Sadly, the answer to Lenz’s question is obvious enough. Late last year The Weekly Standard died — or, rather, was killed by its last owner, Philip Anschutz. In its final incarnation the Standard had established itself as an outlet for principled conservatism that was usually (though not always) harshly critical of Trump and Trumpism. Kristol, a leading voice of the #NeverTrump right, as well as several like-minded conservatives, have gone off to found projects such as The Bulwark (which preceded the Standard’s closing) and a yet-to-be-named venture announced by Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes. Anschutz is now lavishing attention and money on another property he owns, the pro-Trump Washington Examiner.

Meanwhile Carlson, whose intellectual traveling companions were once thinking conservatives like Kristol and John Podhoretz, is now mentioned in the same breath as Trump toadies such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. It’s a matter of prosperity over principle. Too bad one of the most gifted journalists of his generation turned out to be nothing but a cheap hustler.

Research assistance was provided by Northeastern University student Caroline Hanlon.

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Trump and Murdoch: Who’s using whom?

Rupert Murdoch. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Hudson Institute.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The stench of corruption emanating from the White House is so noxious that it can be hard to focus on outrages that truly matter. This matters: As long rumored, but not confirmed until this week, President Trump personally intervened in the merger of media giants AT&T and Time Warner in order to punish CNN, high on the list of “fake news” outlets with which he is perpetually enraged.

The revelation is contained within Jane Mayer’s 11,500-word examination of Fox News, which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker. As Mayer describes it (and as even the most casual viewer will attest), over the past few years Fox has metamorphosed from a right-wing news operation with a shaky grasp of the truth into something much more dangerous: a propaganda outlet for Trump that serves up steaming piles of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to its angry, fearful audience.

Not coincidentally, Fox News’ founder and guiding light, the international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, has emerged as one of Trump’s closest confidants. And Murdoch did not want to see two of his rivals merge, especially given that he had tried and failed to buy Time Warner himself just a few years earlier. Luckily for him, his business interests dovetailed with Trump’s hatred of CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.

As Mayer describes it, in the summer of 2017 Trump told his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, that the Justice Department should fight the merger. Citing “a well-informed source,” Mayer reports that Trump demanded action during a meeting with Cohn and his then-new chief of staff, John Kelly. “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened!” she quotes Trump as saying. “I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!” As the meeting was coming to a close, Mayer writes, Cohn told Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”

But the Justice Department did indeed fight the merger, all the while denying any political motivations. Trump’s opposition to the merger, though, has long been thought to be driven by his hatred for CNN. Cohn himself believed it, according to Mayer. And as I argued a year and a half ago, blocking the merger could have resulted in Time Warner’s falling into Murdoch’s hands, thus fulfilling Rupe’s ambitions and giving him an opportunity to Foxify CNN. (Not that CNN isn’t in serious need of fixing, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Adding to suspicions that Trump was acting on his wish for retribution rather than by genuine concerns about the social consequences of such massive mergers was that there really didn’t seem to be much of a legal case against it. The AT&T-Time Warner deal is something we all ought to be wary of. But under current theories of antitrust law, there was little reason to block it. In fact, the Justice Department’s efforts to stop it were shot down by the courts at every step along the way, and it recently got the final go-ahead.

As Jordan Crook and Danny Crichton explain at TechCrunch, the two companies are complementary businesses rather than competitors. Time Warner is mainly a content company; AT&T is a distributor. Their combination is regarded by many economists as a “vertical merger” that could actually benefit consumers, Crook and Crichton write, by giving them “access to a more comprehensive set of services, at a lower price, while still generating profits.” Besides, in a world in which the entire media landscape is now dominated by Google and Facebook, it may be that the only way to provide competition is by supercharging other media companies.

Now I’ll grant you that in my perfect media world, I would not only have ruled against the merger of AT&T and Time Warner but I’d break up Google and Facebook as well. But it’s the world of the corporate titans, and we’re just living in it. Given that, there is every reason to oppose governmental intervention motivated by presidential pique rather than by genuine regulatory concerns.

Mayer’s report appears destined to become part of the bill of particulars that the Democratic House is assembling as it investigates Trump’s corruption and possible crimes. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he has “long feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the ‘enemy of the people.’”

Meanwhile, another media company seeking favors from the White House is playing it safe. According to David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post, the cell-phone company T-Mobile, which is seeking to merge with its rival Sprint, has spent $195,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel since announcing the proposed deal nearly a year ago — far in excess of what the company had ever spent there previously.

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