Columbia Journalism Review
It was a climbdown. After a court ordered the temporary return of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s White House credentials on Friday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and comms chief Bill Shine warned they would revoke them again the minute the order expired. Yesterday, however, they wrote Acosta with a “final determination” to restore his pass, dropping the threat. In response, CNN quickly ended its lawsuit over the pass, calling it “no longer necessary.” Reporters and commentators, meanwhile, hailed a clear defeat for the White House. “In effect, WH just surrendered,” The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi tweeted. “Great news!” the Society of Professional Journalists exclaimed, also in a tweet. Later, CNN political analyst David Gergen called the U-turn “a significant victory for CNN and for the country.”
The decision did not come without conditions, however. Sanders and Shine laid out a series of briefing room rules they say Acosta and others must obey going forward; if they do not, they risk the “suspension or revocation” of their credentials. The rules state that reporters may ask only one question before yielding the floor; that follow-up questions may only be permitted at the discretion of the White House; and that “yielding the floor” may include physically surrendering the microphone to a staffer. Friday’s court order that the administration reinstate Acosta’s pass was premised on a lack of due process. The White House clearly hopes its rules will protect it from this logic in future.
CNN’s victory is thus part of a more complicated picture. In an email last night, Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia and CJR’s press freedom correspondent, hailed the restoration of Acosta’s pass as “significant and positive”—especially since its revocation was “in flagrant violation of the constitution”—but also called the White House’s new rules “a club to use against journalists.” In particular, Peters worries that the administration will wield that club on outlets it doesn’t like. “The rules don’t discriminate, on their face, between CNN, and Fox News, and The New York Times,” he wrote. “But news organizations will need to be vigilant against discriminatory enforcement.”
Peters is clear that discrimination of this type would likely not hold up in court. “It’s critical to understand that the White House can’t suspend or deny credentials on the basis of the content or viewpoint of a journalist’s reporting,” he said. “That is a substantive First Amendment violation… I wouldn’t want the White House to think it could do whatever it wanted as long as due process was satisfied.”
There are other, less legalistic reasons to see the restoration of Acosta’s pass as a hollow victory, however. Aside from a court order affirming due-process rights, it’s not clear that Acosta, CNN, or the press corps as a whole gained much from this sorry episode. The White House, by contrast, won two weeks’ free airtime for its divisive anti-press rhetoric, and a pretext, however flimsy, to curb reporters’ questions—all while avoiding a definitive ruling on First Amendment grounds. That’s not to say the White House won on the issue at hand; it did not. When it kicked out Acosta, many press advocates called for an unflinching legal response, and that’s exactly what CNN delivered. The fight was necessary. But it probably wasn’t a cause for triumphalism.
The media bandwidth the Acosta episode consumed could have been used more productively; on the fires in California, for example, or on the Thousand Oaks mass shooting, or on midterms fallout. At the time, commentators speculated that the White House had booted Acosta to deflect attention from the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions the same day. By that metric, perhaps the White House did win something.
Below, more on Acosta-gate:
- Can, meet road: The Atlantic’s Scott Nover rounds up more legal reaction to the Acosta climbdown. One attorney, David Lurie, had a particularly interesting point: Because CNN chose to drop its lawsuit, White House threats to expel reporters in a bid to police their questions won’t be tested in court, at least for now.
- Self-censorship? The Post’s Erik Wemple writes that the new White House rules could have a chilling effect on press freedom. “Will reporters run afoul of these new rules? Will they ask two questions when they’re allotted only one?” he asks. “Such technicalities may be beside the point: Reporters will be thinking about those rules and the hassles that come along with violating them.”
- A WHCA tradition, part I: The White House Correspondents’ Association vowed to hold firm against the new rules. “For as long as there have been W.H. press conferences, W.H. reporters have asked follow-up questions,” it said. “We fully expect this tradition will continue.”
- A WHCA tradition, part II: The WHCA also announced yesterday that a comedian will not headline its next annual dinner; instead, the historian Ron Chernow, who wrote the book behind the hit musical Hamilton, will be the featured speaker. Michelle Wolf, whose controversial routine last year clearly prompted the change, called the organization “cowards.”
Other notable stories:
- The Times’s Edmund Lee splashes an extraordinary suggestion from Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s co-founder and CEO, that top digital publishers could merge to demand better terms from social media giants. While Peretti would not say with whom he might have had preliminary discussions, he did namecheck Vice, Vox Media, Group Nine, and Refinery29 as among those doing “interesting work.” In statements to the Times, the CEOs of Vox and Refinery29 seemingly left the door open to teaming up.
- Over the weekend, BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg reported on a different industry plan to “gang up on Facebook and Google,” as media companies seek permission to bargain collectively with web platforms over content distribution, an option currently banned by antitrust laws. While the proposal “languished in Congress” after it was presented last year, Perlberg writes, “with resentment against Big Tech at an all-time high in Washington and Democrats set to take control of the House, news executives are starting to believe they now have another shot.”
- A chaser from the frantic Facebook news cycle: Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says Mark Zuckerberg should, at the very least, relinquish his role as the company’s chairman, giving its board more independence to check his power as CEO.
- For CJR’s print issue on race and journalism, Alice Driver writes about the benefits—and challenges—of translating stories to reach new readers.
- Last week, I wrote that much early coverage failed to situate the California wildfires in the context of climate change. Yesterday, Mat Honan, BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau chief, showed how it should be done in a striking piece casting the fires as a defining moment. “In California, in mid-November of 2018, it became as clear as it did in New York in mid-September of 2001 that what was a once-distant threat has now arrived,” Honan writes. “Many factors made the situation what it is—a sprawl of homes slung into the wilderness, for example, and fire management practices. But the most salient cause is climate change… We have built our homes in canyons and on hillsides that resemble chimneys. And now it doesn’t seem like there’s any way out.”
- And CJR’s Mathew Ingram spoke with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, whose crowdsourced news venture, WikiTribune, laid off its entire journalistic staff in October. WikiTribune’s “structure, including restrictions on who could publish news, seemed to give would-be contributors the impression they were second-class citizens of the service—that their job was to submit content that would then be fixed up by professional journalists,” Ingram writes. As Wales told him, “That’s not the wiki way.”
On Friday, the seemingly endless scandal over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident writer killed in his country’s Istanbul consulate early last month, took another twist. The Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked as an opinion columnist, reported the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) personally ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The paper wrote that the CIA had “high confidence” in its finding despite weeks of Saudi official denial—denial that has been aided and abetted by President Trump.
The scoop renewed calls for Trump to take strong action against MBS and the broader Saudi regime. Two especially strong calls came from Republican senators yesterday. Rand Paul told CBS’s Margaret Brennan that the evidence of MBS’s involvement was “overwhelming” and pushed for a halt to US–Saudi arms deals. Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that it was “impossible for me to believe” that MBS didn’t sanction the murder. “He’s irrational. He’s unhinged,” Graham said. “I have no intention of working with him ever again.”
It nonetheless looks likely that the US government will continue to treat MBS with kid gloves. According to the Post, the CIA still sees him as a “good technocrat” likely to retain both his status as heir apparent and the outsize power he has brought to the role. Over the weekend, Trump himself doubled down on the same, awkward line he’s taken since Khashoggi’s killing came to light—mixing non-committal remarks about “taking a look at” at MBS’s role with broader praise for the US–Saudi relationship. He told reporters the kingdom remains “a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development.” And in an extraordinary interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace that aired last night, Trump admitted he hasn’t listened to an audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder that Turkish officials passed to the US. “It’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape,” Trump said. “I’ve been fully briefed on it, there’s no reason for me to hear it.”
Despite promising that a “very full report” on the Khashoggi affair will wrap today or tomorrow, it’s hard to imagine Trump turning on MBS whatever new evidence it might contain. The crown prince’s dismal long-term record on free expression has never been a secret, and MBS’s denials that he ordered Khashoggi’s killing have always looked implausible given its heavy-handed, pre-planned extent.
In the court of global public opinion, however, MBS has been irreparably weakened. The enlightened reformer of so much old coverage is gone—erased by a heavily critical news cycle that, well into its second month, continues to link MBS to a gratuitously brutal crime, and furnish excellent, overdue reporting on other aspects of his power, particularly the deadly war he is prosecuting in Yemen.
Khashoggi’s murder is clearly no cause for triumphalism: an innocent man is dead, MBS has so far escaped hard consequences, and the arms sales fueling a humanitarian catastrophe look almost certain to continue. But sustained US media scrutiny of MBS and Saudi Arabia is, in its own small way, a victory. When I spoke with Khashoggi in March, he told me he supported some of MBS’s reform program, but that a franker conversation was needed, particularly around MBS’s crackdown on dissent. Tragically, it took Khashoggi’s murder for that wish to come true.
Below, more on the ongoing Khashoggi story:
- Willful ignorance: The New York Times’s Mark Landler spells out why Trump is sticking by MBS. The president’s remarks on Fox News yesterday, Landler writes, “were a vivid illustration of how deeply Mr. Trump has invested in the 33-year-old heir, who has become the fulcrum of the administration’s strategy in the Middle East—from Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—as well as a prolific shopper for American military weapons, even if most of those contracts have not paid off yet.”
- Sanctions, and fallout: Last week, the US did levy sanctions against 17 Saudis it said were implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, including senior officials close to MBS. On Friday, a key architect of those sanctions, White House official Kirsten Fontenrose, resigned. Fontenrose may have annoyed foreign policy officials by pushing for a tougher response to the killing, the Times reports.
- “A methodical, systematic investigation”: Writing for CJR earlier this month, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called on the United Nations to launch an independent inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing, warning that Turkey, which has its own dire record on press freedom, cannot be trusted to investigate alone.
- Solidarity act: Fox News’s Wallace pushed Trump hard on his anti-media attacks in the interview that aired yesterday, telling the president he is seen around the world as “a beacon for repression.” When Trump said he didn’t view Wallace as an “enemy of the people,” Wallace replied, “We’re all together… When you call CNN, The New York Times… we’re in solidarity.”
Other notable stories:
- As wildfire continues to ravage Northern California, David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record, criticized the national news media’s response in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter. “I felt a little frustration yesterday, all the national media was here, and it was just for the presidential visit,” Little said. “I just wish the focus was more on the recovery and less on the politics.” ICYMI, CJR’s Amanda Darrach has interviews with Little; two other Enterprise-Record staffers; and Rick Silva, the editor of a different local paper, the Paradise Post.
- On Friday, Judge Timothy J. Kelly ordered the Trump administration temporarily reinstate Jim Acosta’s press pass on Fifth Amendment grounds, but did not address the First Amendment underpinnings of the case. The White House continued to play hardball over the weekend, telling Acosta his pass will be revoked again once the court order expires, and promising a new code of conduct for reporters. Further hearings are expected in the next few weeks.
- The fallout from Wednesday’s stunning Times exposé of behind-the-scenes skulduggery at Facebook continues. On a Friday call with employees worldwide, Mark Zuckerberg aggressively defended the company, calling the Times investigation “completely unfair,” and pledging to fire employees who leak to media outlets. In a Saturday op-ed in the Post, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief, confirmed key elements of the Times’s reporting about top executives’ reaction to Russian interference on the platform, but also implicated the intelligence services and news media in the spread of the problem. And yesterday, the Times’s Jim Rutenberg wrote that the warning signs about Facebook were all there in the 2010 film The Social Network.
- The Post’s Eli Saslow has this must-read story about Christopher Blair, a liberal who runs a satirical right-wing fake news website, and Shirley Chapian, a reader who thinks the content is real and shares it on Facebook. Blair, who makes up to $15,000 a month in ad revenue, started the site “to engage directly with people who spread false or extremist stories and prove those stories were wrong,” Saslow writes. “What Blair wasn’t sure he had ever done was change a single person’s mind. The people he fooled often came back to the page, and he continued to feed them the kind of viral content that boosted his readership and his bank account.”
- A much-mooted merger between CBS and Viacom could be closed within months, the New York Post’s Alexandra Steigrad reports (a third partner, the video-game publisher Take-Two Interactive, could yet make it a three-way deal). Former CBS boss Les Moonves strongly opposed the merger, but his September resignation following allegations of sexual misconduct has cleared a path forward.
- For CJR, Lyz Lenz looks at a new format for Axios: “smart brevity” longform. “Despite the Axios language, it all seems a fairly standard online media project: SEO-optimized articles, with lots of links to other pages on the site. The kind that anyone who has worked as a proletariat cog in the machinations of content churn knows very well—the SEO chum bucket of clickbait,” Lenz writes. After it published, Lenz tweeted that Axios CEO Jim Vandehei phoned her and called the piece “dopey.”
- And Thrillist food writer Kevin Alexander reflects on crowning, then killing, the best burger joint in America. “Apparently, after my story came out, crowds of people started coming in the restaurant, people in from out of town, or from the suburbs, basically just non-regulars,” Alexander writes of Stanich’s in Portland, Oregon. As staff struggled to handle the increased demand, angry customers “had no problem going on Yelp or Facebook and denouncing the restaurant and saying that the burgers were bad.”
After finally reaching agreement with the European Union on the details of Brexit earlier this week, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, wobbled. Domestic critics assailed her from all sides—charging, variously, that the deal she struck would entail too close a relationship with the EU or not enough of one. Yesterday, two members of May’s cabinet—including the official who, in theory, had been responsible for the Brexit negotiations—resigned, saying they could not support the deal. Senior backbench lawmakers, desperate to sever as many ties as possible with the EU, threatened to trigger a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership. When May stood up in Parliament to promise a “smooth and orderly” exit from the bloc, mocking laughter pealed around the House of Commons.
Swathes of Britain’s press, which is reliably opinionated, have, predictably, piled on May, too, renewing long-held criticisms of her performance and the Brexit process as a whole. On the left, The Guardian offered rare, faint praise of May, but painted her deal as a disaster with flaws “intrinsic to the very idea of Brexit,” which the paper has always opposed. On the right, the Murdoch-owned Sun—which vociferously backed Brexit leading up to the 2016 vote and has since pushed for a cleaner break with Europe than May is offering—screamed yesterday, in melodramatic all caps, that “WE’RE IN THE BREXS*IT.” The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has topped its front page with scathing opinion pieces for two days running. Yesterday, it went with a wounding assessment by Nick Timothy, May’s former right-hand man, that the deal was “a capitulation.” Today, it quoted columnist Allison Pierson’s call for May to resign immediately. “We need a chess grandmaster to wrangle with Brussels,” Pierson writes, “not the runner-up in the 1973 Towcester tiddlywinks competition.”
Britain’s print media are not generally prone to changing their spots, yet the past few months have brought some curious, and important, realignments. A year and a day ago, the right-wing Daily Mail mocked up a mugshot-gallery-style front page with pictures of Conservative Party lawmakers who favored Britain’s EU membership under the headline “The Brexit mutineers” (afterward, some of them received threats). Since then, however, Paul Dacre, the Mail’s pro-Brexit editor, departed, and was replaced by Geordie Greig, a convinced “Remainer.” This morning, the Mail once again took aim at Conservative rebels—this time, however, it was those on the opposite, hard-right wing of the party that drew its ire. Calling them “preening saboteurs,” the paper asked, in its front-page headline, “HAVE THEY LOST THE PLOT?”
The Daily Express, a strident right-wing voice of yore, has been kind to May’s soft Brexit deal this week, too. It, too, got a new editor this year, appointing Gary Jones, who formerly led the Sunday Mirror, a left-leaning tabloid. At a Parliamentary hearing shortly after his appointment, Jones called some of his paper’s past content “Islamophobic” and “downright offensive,” and promised a softening of tone. Yesterday, the Express painted the “rosiest picture as far as May is concerned” of any paper, the Guardian observed, “with no mention of leadership challenges or cabinet troubles”; this morning, its front-page headline called May “defiant.”
Britain’s tabloids pride themselves on their ability to shape the country’s political agenda. In 1992, a now-mythic Sun front page famously claimed credit for an unexpected Conservative Party election victory (“IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”). The foundations of the country’s vote to leave the EU, too, were undoubtedly laid by decades of hostility toward Europe on the part of right-wing papers, the Mail and the Express prominent among them. May remains very much under-fire—not least from The Sun—though it will comfort her that at least a few strong media voices who would previously have ridiculed her deal are standing behind it, and her, for now.
The extent to which British papers lead their readers by the nose, rather than the other way around, however, has long been an open debate. A YouGov poll out today indicates widespread public rejection of May’s deal, with many citizens pushing for a second referendum instead. Like everywhere else, newspaper circulation in Britain is declining. If Brexit is the apotheosis of the country’s campaigning press, it might also mark the start of a new, steep decline.
Below, more on Brexit:
- A1: The Guardian has a good round-up of today’s British newspaper front pages.
- B3: While right-wing columnists in the Telegraph slammed May’s deal and called for a harder Brexit, the paper today gave page three to an op-ed by Tony Blair, former Labour Party prime minister, who is campaigning for a second vote to keep Britain in Europe after all.
- C you later: When May became prime minister after the Brexit vote, in 2016, she sacked George Osborne, who had served as finance minister under May’s predecessor, David Cameron. Osborne then quit politics to become editor of the Evening Standard, a London newspaper. He’s used that perch to relentlessly hound May: according to Esquire, he said last year that he would not rest until she is “chopped up in bags in my freezer.” It comes as no surprise that the Standard has been hard on May’s deal this week, calling it “dead.”
- D parts: In July, The Atlantic’s Tom Rachman wrote that Paul Dacre’s departure from the Mail could change Britain. “The Daily Mail still commands vast power, its thunderous front-page headlines all but causing the paintings to tremble at 10 Downing Street,” Rachman wrote. “And this is where Greig comes in, for he is about to take control at the inky institution, perhaps editing this country’s political chaos in the process.”
Other notable stories:
- On CJR’s podcast The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record in Northern California, on getting a paper out amid the deadliest wildfires in that state’s history. The LA Times’s Benjamin Oreskes also profiled the Enterprise-Record, noting that its staff has dwindled in recent years.
- Bucking expectations, the judge in CNN’s lawsuit against the White House did not rule yesterday on a temporary restraining order to restore Jim Acosta’s press credentials; he’s set to rule this morning instead. After a pack of news organizations, including Fox, filed amicus briefs on behalf of CNN, the pro-Trump One America News Network also filed a brief… on behalf of the White House.
- Prosecutors inadvertently revealed that the Justice Department has prepared to indict Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who lives in exile in Ecuador’s London embassy. “Though the possible charges against Mr. Assange remained a mystery on Thursday, an indictment centering on the publication of information of public interest… would create a precedent with profound implications for press freedoms,” the Times reports.
- Mark Zuckerberg hopped on a call with reporters to discuss Facebook’s community standards yesterday, but was quickly derailed by questions about Wednesday’s explosive Times scoop outlining a behind-the-scenes malaise at the company. As fallout from the company’s questionable PR tactics—which included hiring Republican spinners to link liberal activists to George Soros—intensified, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and a key subject of the Times piece, pushed back. For CJR, Mathew Ingram writes that “Facebook’s instinct to deny, then apologize is baked into its DNA.”
- Saudi prosecutors announced yesterday that they would seek the death penalty for five people they said were directly responsible for the murder of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi last month—though the announcement once again shifted the official narrative, asserting that the killers were under orders to render Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, but instead administered an overdose of sedatives. Also yesterday, the US government imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis it said were implicated. The list included senior officials close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
- Remember the migrant caravan? Fox News helped Trump whip up an immigration panic prior to the midterms, but then mostly dropped the story, according to data obtained by The Wrap’s Jon Levine. Mentions on CNN and MSNBC—who were criticized for amplifying Trump’s wild claims—also trailed off.
- BuzzFeed has a revealing round-up of the perks different cities offered Amazon as it hunted for a second headquarters, including an exclusive airport lounge for executives (Atlanta), a special taskforce to curb an “unacceptable murder rate” (Columbus), and… nothing at all (Toronto). Amazon decided to split its new base between New York and Arlington, Virginia.
- With friends like these… The Daily Beast reports that Trump has repeatedly mocked the “dumb” softball questions of his top media booster Sean Hannity.
- And for CJR, Karen K. Ho spoke with Sunny Dhillon, a reporter at Canada’s Globe and Mail who quit last month after his bureau chief would not let him focus on the lack of diversity in Vancouver’s newly elected city council.
Hiring a Republican opposition-research firm to cast liberal critics as tools of George Soros. Lobbying the Anti-Defamation League to call other criticism anti-Semitic. Ordering top management to use only Android phones following public criticism from the chief executive of Apple.
These were among the extraordinary details about Facebook’s inner workings that The New York Times laid bare yesterday. In a five-byline scoop, Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas unspool the disputes and dysfunction that have gripped the tech giant through cascading scandals and intensifying PR disasters in recent years. Frenkel tweeted yesterday that the piece took six months to complete. “Facebook is notoriously difficult to report on,” she said. “The company offers highly curated, and controlled, access to journalists.”
Keeping a tight focus on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, its chief operating officer, the Times reveals the lengths to which the company has gone to hide its blemishes. “Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view,” it says. “While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation.”
As the piece shows, Facebook conceived of its early problems as chiefly political. It punted when Donald Trump used the platform to spread anti-Muslim invective in 2015, worried that acting against his account would infuriate conservative critics. When staffers uncovered concerted Russian activity on the network around the 2016 presidential election, Sandberg and other executives reacted angrily, then opted to downplay the findings—worried, again, that Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats as the polarizing debate over Russian interference blew up.
Over time, however, criticism of Facebook has become increasingly bipartisan, and its woes more user-facing. Earlier this year, Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress following reports that Cambridge Analytica, a shady electoral research firm with links to Trump’s presidential campaign, harvested masses of user data. In the months since, the company has had to reckon with the revelations, also in the Times, that it passed reams more data to device makers, and hackers stealing many users’ information in the company’s worst ever security breach.
The Times piece ties these threads together. Questions around speech on the platform and Russian disinformation were excruciating for Facebook—but their complexity allowed Facebook to claim it was grappling in good faith to rectify them. More recently, that projection has become see-through. The Times has decisively exposed it for what it always was—a cynical front for a company that has been nowhere near willing enough to reform its flawed business model and product.
On Twitter yesterday, even longtime Facebook-watchers expressed shock that the firm paid GOP-linked spinners to cast legitimate criticism as part of a Soros-backed campaign—a move with ugly echoes of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Facebook and other social networks have allowed to fester on their platforms. As its problems have stacked up, Facebook has had more than its fair share of the benefit of the doubt. As one more damning report emerges from behind the scenes, its critics are less likely than ever to be as generous going forward.
Below, more on Facebook’s new travails and past efforts to escape scrutiny:
- A tipping point? Democrats winning the House majority looks set to be another blow for Facebook. Reacting to the Times scoop, Democratic Congressman David Cicilline, who is expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel from January, tweeted, “This staggering report makes clear that Facebook executives will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers. It is long past time for us to take action.”
- Trouble at the top? NBC Silicon Valley–watcher Dylan Byers had an interesting reaction to the Times piece. “What’s so damning about this Facebook story isn’t just what [the Times] learned, it’s who they learned it from,” he tweeted. “Many of the most damning details could only have come from high-ranking executives who were in the room at confidential meetings. That suggests real trouble in Menlo.”
- Trouble below decks: Even before the Times story landed yesterday, The Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman reported that employee morale at Facebook is collapsing, with an internal survey showing 32 percent fewer staffers than a year ago are optimistic about the firm’s future.
- Disingenuous, I: Last week, Facebook released an independent report admitting that it did not do enough to combat the spread of hate on the platform in Myanmar, but insisting that its efforts were now on the right track. A United Nations report released on the same day, however, accused Facebook of continuing to hide the full extent of the problem, as CJR’s Mathew Ingram pointed out.
- Disingenuous, II: It’s worth coming back to this story from Mya Frazier, who wrote for CJR in February that Facebook used pseudonyms to cut deals with public entities and insisted on reviewing freedom of information requests pertaining to the company—a bid to evade routine journalistic scrutiny. The practice is reportedly common among tech giants: this week, it emerged that Amazon also won the right to review FOIAs as part of its deal to build a new base in Virginia.
Other notable stories:
- A bevy of major news organizations—including Fox News—filed amicus briefs on behalf of CNN as the network sues the Trump administration for the reinstatement of Jim Acosta’s press credentials. At an eventful first hearing yesterday, a Justice Department lawyer told Judge Timothy J. Kelly that the White House can legally pull a reporter’s press pass for any reason it chooses (including unfavorable coverage), and a man told Acosta he should be “lawfully hung” as he entered the courtroom. Kelly is expected to rule today on CNN’s request for a temporary restraining order which, if granted, would reinstate Acosta’s pass for now.
- As the White House doubled down on anti-media maneuvers at home, Vice President Mike Pence lectured Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on her country’s press freedom failures at a summit in Singapore. Pence condemned Myanmar’s jailing of the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in public remarks, then again in a “very candid” private exchange, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports.
- Leaders of Italy’s anti-establishment governing Five Star Movement called journalists “jackals” and “whores” over their reporting of a corruption case involving the mayor of Rome, who was acquitted this week. Responding to the attacks, journalists’ unions in the country organized flash mobs in major cities, as well as in London and Brussels.
- For CJR, Larry Light writes that Republicans’ hatred of the news media is a long-term affair, tracing it back to Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 dismantling of Joe McCarthy. “Not much has changed,” Light says. “For many Republicans, the existence of a liberal media bias is an established fact, like the temperature at which water freezes.”
- Employees at the Capital Gazette newspaper group in Annapolis, Maryland—where a gunman killed five staffers in June—are joining with colleagues at The Baltimore Sun and Carroll County Times to unionize under the banner of the Chesapeake News Guild. “As local news outlets dwindle, we know now more than ever that quality community news is a gift too precious to lose. But that important work grows more difficult each day because of decisions made by distant corporate owners on behalf of shareholders,” organizers wrote. The papers are owned by Tribune Publishing, the distant corporate owners formerly known as tronc.
- The Financial Times has created a bot that warns editors when they are not quoting enough women, The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports.
- And for CJR’s latest print issue, Errin Haines Whack, National Writer on Race and Ethnicity at the Associated Press, wrote about her life on the race beat. “As race is an omnipresent force in American life, race coverage, which requires the same sort of expertise as business or education journalism, is essential to reporting on who we are as a society,” she says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, after two years of unrelenting hostility from Donald Trump and the White House towards the media, it would come to this: a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in federal court by CNN, against the president and several members of his administration—including Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff John Kelly—for taking away CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass on November 7. The lawsuit says removing the pass was a breach of the First Amendment rights of both the network and its reporter, and also that it breached CNN and Acosta’s Fifth Amendment rights to due process, since they were not notified of the ban and were unable to appeal it.
CNN has asked the judge to issue a restraining order, which would require the White House to either reinstate Acosta’s pass fully, or give it back to him until a hearing can be held into whether the removal was justified. The network also says in the lawsuit that it tried to resolve the dispute with Kelly privately, but after getting no response felt compelled to file the suit.
As unsurprising as it might be in the current era, the lawsuit is almost unprecedented in the history of the relationship between presidents and the press, according to Jonathan Peters, CJR’s press freedom correspondent and media law professor at the University of Georgia. There have only been two such cases in modern memory, and the last one—which also involved CNN—was heard in 1981. At that time, the cable news network was new on the scene, and sued the White House and then-president Ronald Reagan, alleging that the company’s First Amendment rights had been infringed because CNN was not given access to press pool events. The White House responded by excluding all the TV networks, who then sued. The court ultimately agreed they had a First Amendment right to access press events.
According to Peters and other First Amendment experts, however, the most relevant case originated more than a decade before the CNN lawsuit, in 1966, when Robert Sherrill—a muckraking investigative reporter for The Nation—was denied a White House press pass. Sherrill and the American Civil Liberties Union sued in 1972, and five years later the DC Court of Appeals ruled that he had a First Amendment right of access to White House press conferences. The decision stated the conferences were designed to be open to all bona fide Washington journalists, and that this required the White House to ensure that “this access not be denied arbitrarily or for less than compelling reasons.”
In addition, as veteran First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told CNN, case law in the US has established that before a press pass is revoked or denied, “you have to have notice, you have to have a chance to respond, and you have to have a written opinion by the White House as to what it’s doing and why, so the courts can examine it.” None of those things occurred in this case, which is why the CNN lawsuit argues withdrawing Acosta’s pass is a breach of the Fifth Amendment. A third claim involving the Secret Service is based on the principle laid out in the federal Code of Regulations, which states that in denying a press pass, the Secret Service “will be guided solely by the principle of whether the applicant presents a potential source of physical danger to the President and/or the family of the President.”
The White House responded to the lawsuit with a statement calling it “just more grandstanding from CNN,” and saying the Trump administration would vigorously defend itself. Press Secretary Sanders said in the statement that CNN has almost 50 other reporters who have hard press passes, and Acosta “is no more or less special than any other media outlet or reporter with respect to the First Amendment.” Sanders also referred to the recent press conference in which Acosta refused to surrender the microphone to a White House intern, saying “the First Amendment is not served when a single reporter… attempts to monopolize the floor.”
Here’s more on the CNN suit and its aftermath:
- Conduct appropriate: In a declaration included with the CNN lawsuit, veteran White House correspondent Sam Donaldson said that Acosta’s conduct at the press conference where he refused to give up the microphone was “appropriate and within the norms of professional conduct.”
- Fox says CNN will win: Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst, said he expects the lawsuit to be resolved in CNN’s favor. “The only grounds for revoking a press pass are, is the person a danger to the physical security of the president or his family?,” he said. “Acosta may have been an irritant, but he was hardly a danger.”
- From the WHCA: The White House Correspondents Association put out a statement saying it supports the lawsuit and that “the President of the United States should not be in the business of arbitrarily picking the men and women who cover him.”
- Un-American: The American Civil Liberties Union said “It is un-American and unlawful for the president to expel a reporter from the White House briefing room for doing his job. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to remind the president of the First Amendment.”
Other notable stories:
- News from my colleague Andrew McCormick: Manuel Duran, a Memphis-based journalist who was arrested by Memphis police in April and turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials in the wake of reporting that criticized both entities, might face imminent deportation to his home country of El Salvador. Tuesday, on a conference call with journalists hosted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Duran’s lawyers said the Board of Immigration Appeals denied Duran’s appeal of an immigration judge’s decision earlier this year. His lawyers are now seeking review of the board’s decision at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, with ultimate hopes of presenting an asylum case for Duran, who fled El Salvador in 2006 amid threats against him due to his reporting. Duran, who also spoke on the call, believes he was expressly targeted by US officials as a result of his work, which he framed as part of a larger effort by the government to silence dissent against the administration’s immigration policies.
- In a Twitter thread, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale criticized mainstream media outlets for the way they write headlines and tweets about Trump, saying they “blast out his lies to millions of people without pointing out they’re not true.”
- Andrew McCormick writes for CJR about how many media outlets have improperly drawn a direct line from former Marine Ian Long’s military service and post-traumatic stress disorder to his decision to shoot and kill 12 people at a country bar.
- De Correspondent, a reader-supported news site based in the Netherlands, launched a “pay what you want” crowdfunding campaign on Wednesday that it hopes will raise at least $2.5 million to create an English-language version of the site.
- Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes that the media’s eagerness to discount the so-called “blue wave” phenomenon (a move towards the left that many hoped to see in the midterm elections) feeds into a dangerous problem.
- Axios reports that Yahoo, now part of the media arm of Verizon along with Huff Post, is launching a subscription service for its financial portal Yahoo Finance, which the company hopes will compete with Bloomberg’s financial information business.
- Noah Shachtman, the new editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, says on the Recode podcast that he sees the site as a successor to Gawker Media, because it likes to “take a side and throw a punch and call bullshit on the things that need to be called bullshit on.”