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Updated: 8 hours 9 min ago

US–Iran coverage is still not skeptical enough

11 hours 1 min ago

With every day that passes, the drumbeat of war echoes a little more loudly through our media. Yesterday, officials in Iran said that the country will soon have produced and stockpiled more low-enriched uranium—of the type used in power plants—than it is permitted to possess under the 2015 nuclear deal, which the US ditched last year. In Washington, the Trump administration moved to dispatch 1,000 American troops to the Middle East, adding to the 1,500-strong deployment it sent last month. Tensions between the US and Iran, we are told, are rising.

Left-wing observers have long complained that American outlets’ coverage of hostile foreign governments—certainly in the Middle East, and particularly in Iran—tends to parrot the line of the US government, however bellicose, without applying due skepticism. How has the latest Iran coverage shaped up? It’s hard to generalize, of course. But the Trump era writ large has brought out the skeptical side in many reporters, and it seems that some of them have applied it to the Iran story. Late last week and over the weekend, reporters repeatedly raised doubts as to Trump’s credibility in connection with his administration’s claim that Iran attacked two oil tankers (neither of which are American) in the Gulf of Oman. (Iran denies this.) The purported evidence—a video appearing to show Iranian soldiers removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers—was called into question by the owner of one of the ships and the German foreign minister, among others, and so interviewers asked US officials to show more proof. “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. “The world will come to see much of it.”

ICYMI: A ‘disappointed’ BuzzFeed newsroom walks off the job

Yesterday, the Trump administration declassified images it says back up its case that Iran was behind the tanker attacks. Many outlets relayed administration claims about the images in headlines; in a tweet, Politico said that, per the Pentagon, “the images provide ironclad evidence Iran was responsible.” The third paragraph of Politico’s linked story, however, notes that “nothing in the photos or accompanying documents reveal evidence of the placement of the magnetic mines on the ship.” Hardly “ironclad,” then. Last night, in an article for Task & Purpose, a military news site, Jeff Schogol argued that “not a single US official has provided a shred of proof linking Iran to the explosive devices found on the merchant ships.” Without air-tight evidence, news outlets really should not air administration claims without a heavy dose of context. “Pompeo/Bolton/Shanahan said” is not enough.

Again, it’s hard to generalize, but US coverage of the latest Iran episode seems to be falling into some old, bad habits. In recent coverage, “the media has generally been better at treating unproven accusations by the Trump administration as just that—accusations, and not facts,” Trita Parsi, a researcher and founder of the National Iranian American Council, told me last night in an email. “Yet, on numerous occasions, there has either been a failure to push back against blatantly false assertions by Trump officials, or Trump accusations have been presented as proven facts.” The problem is especially acute in headlines and tweets, Parsi notes.

As Andrew Lee Butters wrote in a recent piece for CJR, “a dynamic has developed in Iran reporting, a kind of paranoid feeding frenzy, that helps anti-Iran Trump administration hardliners like John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, build momentum for confrontation.” Butters’s point that US outlets often characterize Iran as “threatening” to resume nuclear production—even though the country has thus far abided by a deal that the US decided to break—echoes in coverage this morning. “There are also cases in which Trump’s violation of the [deal] is solely presented as a ‘withdrawal,’ while Iran’s threat of reducing its adherence to the deal is (correctly) presented as a ‘violation,’” Parsi told me.

It’s welcome if Trump’s role has brought a dash more skepticism to coverage of US–Iran relations, but the traditional problems with this coverage run much deeper than Trump. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, Iran is too often framed as a menacing, unilateral aggressor whose actions necessitate a strong American response. The truth is a whole lot more complicated.

Below, more on coverage of the US and Iran:

  • “Bomb Iran”: The name of John Bolton was buried in some articles about the latest US troop movements and entirely absent from others despite his hawkish views on Iran being well known. Last night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes went a different route: the words “BOLTON’S WAR” were displayed as a backdrop as Hayes began a segment on Iran. Last month, Dexter Filkins had an insightful profile of Bolton for The New Yorker.
  • A dangerous feedback loop: Matt Gertz writes, for Media Matters for America, that Trump’s propensity to listen to Fox News talking points could have disastrous consequences when it comes to Iran. (Yesterday, Trump tweeted the exact wording of a chyron that had just appeared on Fox.) Several figures on the network have advocated a military escalation with Iran, arguing that the country “only responds to strength.”
  • Doing better: Writing for The Intercept last month, Mehdi Hasan outlined “four simple steps the US media could take to prevent a Trump war with Iran.” Reporters, Hasan argues, should stop passing on official claims without checking them, diversify their sourcing, and build historical context about US–Iran relations into their reporting.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday morning, a heavily armed gunman started shooting outside a federal courts building in Dallas. Tom Fox, a photojournalist at the Dallas Morning News, was at the courthouse for a routine assignment and captured an extraordinary image of the shooter before taking cover. “You use the camera almost as a shield,” Fox told the Morning News. “I also felt a journalistic duty to do all that.” The gunman—who was killed in an exchange of fire with police—was the only casualty. Echoing other recent shootings, his Facebook page contained vague warnings of an attack alongside far-right conspiracy theories and memes, NBC’s Elisha Fieldstadt, Brandy Zadrozny, and Ben Collins report.
  • Yesterday afternoon, BuzzFeed staffers in New York, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco walked off the job to protest management’s failure to recognize their unionization efforts. Executives say they already made an offer of recognition; workers say that that offer would limit union membership by exempting certain job titles. Employees in BuzzFeed’s New York office held a protest on the sidewalk. CJR’s Andrew McCormick went to check it out. “We want to focus on the work,” Davey Alba, a BuzzFeed technology reporter and union organizer, told him.
  • Last month, Authentic Brands Group, a marketing company, acquired Sports Illustrated in an “unusual partnership”: Authentic Brand Groups would license SI’s brand and content while Meredith, the magazine’s previous owner, would continue to handle editorial output. Now, the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly reports, Meredith is all but out of the picture. Authentic Brands Group licensed SI’s print and digital publishing rights to The Maven—a startup linked to Ross Levinsohn, a former tronc/Tribune executive trailed by allegations of sexual harassment, who will now take charge of SI’s editorial output.
  • In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote that Trump may have granted access to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a bid to reach out beyond his base ahead of his formal 2020 campaign launch tonight. If that was Trump’s goal, he’ll be disappointed with the ratings: Politico’s Caitlin Oprysko reports that the full interview came in third in its timeslot on Sunday night, way down on Celebrity Family Feud, which held the same slot last week.
  • Matt Pearce, who is covering the 2020 campaign for the LA Times, published a story about Jay Inslee, the Washington governor whose push for the Democratic nomination is centered on climate change. Pearce chose the topic after his readers told him, in a survey, that they wanted climate change to feature prominently in his coverage. Pearce’s strategy echoes the “citizens agenda” approach—advocated by NYU Professor Jay Rosen—encouraging reporters to cover issues that matter to the community they serve.
  • The New Yorker’s Paige Williams, who profiled Sarah Huckabee Sanders last year, takes a fresh look at Sanders as she prepares to stand down as White House press secretary. “While critics assail Sanders for peddling lies and denigrating the press during televised briefings, many of the White House reporters who consistently interact with her have described her to me as decent and honest in private,” Williams writes. “I would say that they ‘liked’ her, if likability, as it relates to women, weren’t such a loaded term.”
  • For CJR, Adrian Glass-Moore reports on aggressive efforts by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority to push back on stories—including in a student-run newspaper—about plans to inject private money into public housing. In particular, city housing officials objected to use of the word “privatization”; one called it “a highly charged trigger word that is frequently weaponized in debates about affordable housing.” In response to the pressure, several news organizations made changes to published articles.
  • And the defamation case brought by families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims against Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who called the shooting a hoax, took a strange turn after lawyers for the families said they found child pornography in files handed over by Jones. Jones’s lawyer says the images were sent to Jones in emails that he never opened; Jones, on his web show, accused a lawyer for the families of trying to frame him and pound[ed] on a picture of the lawyer’s face. Today, a court will hear a motion that Jones publicly threatened the lawyer. Confused? The AP has much more.

ICYMI: No male editor has ever accepted my pitches on abortion

An Atlanta radio host complained of gender discrimination. Then she was restructured out of a job.

12 hours 13 min ago
One afternoon in June 2018, as Alison Tyler listened to the radio on her drive home from work, she realized a familiar voice had disappeared from Atlanta’s airwaves. Amy Kiley, host of All Things Considered on WABE-FM (90.1), wasn’t in her usual afternoon drive-time slot. Later, Tyler wrote to WABE, wondering what happened to Kiley. […]

A ‘disappointed’ BuzzFeed newsroom walks off the job

June 17, 2019 - 4:42pm
Outside of BuzzFeed’s Manhattan offices on Monday, under a gray sky and occasional drops of rain, several dozen staffers of what was once the hottest news outlet on the Internet walked off their jobs. Lined up on the sidewalk along East 18th Street, they cheered and hoisted signs. “RECOGNIZE THE BUZZFEED UNION,” some read. Most, […]

Housing officials, newsrooms square off over ‘privatization’

June 17, 2019 - 10:22am
On April 5, University of Minnesota senior Aleezeh Hasan sat in on a meeting for residents at the Elliot Twins public housing complex in Minneapolis. The meeting, organized by a local advocacy group, was called to address the city’s plans to transfer 99.99 percent of Elliot Twins’s ownership to a private investor, in a strategy […]

The promise—and peril—of Trump’s interview with Stephanopoulos

June 17, 2019 - 6:49am

President Trump hadn’t granted a network news interview in more than four months. Per Mark Knoller, of CBS, Trump had done just two Sunday-show hits in his entire presidency; per Media Matters for America, nearly three-quarters of Trump’s national TV interviews as president have been with Fox channels. It was thus a surprise when the president gave 30 hours of access to George Stephanopoulos, chief anchor of ABC News, last week. Under another president, shots of Stephanopoulos leaning over the desk in the Oval Office and chatting in Air Force One and the presidential limo would not have been especially remarkable. Under Trump, they felt like lost footage from a forgotten era.

To read the headlines that came out of it, Trump’s unusual interview backfired spectacularly. In the middle of last week, ABC released footage of Trump saying that he would accept intel from a foreign government without telling the FBI about it; from that moment on, the remarks drove a furious, multi-day news cycle. Many reporters and commentators pointed out that such conduct would be illegal; several senior Republicans distanced themselves from the president’s words. As the week progressed, ABC threw further clips on the fire. Trump accused Don McGahn, the White House counsel turned key Robert Mueller witness, of lying under oath; when Stephanopoulos asked the president why he himself hadn’t testified to Mueller under oath, Trump replied, “Because they were looking to get us for lies or slight misstatements.” As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy put it, the ABC interview looked like “another fine mess” for Trump. By Friday morning, the president was on the phone to Fox & Friends for some damage control.

ICYMI: No male editor has ever accepted my pitches on abortion

The fallout from the Stephanopoulos interview, pundits surmised, is precisely why Trump doesn’t tend to do interviews with journalists who aren’t his friends. “When seated with anyone other than Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump seems to fall apart,” Nicolle Wallace said on MSNBC. “He seems to lack the mental acuity and the truth-telling capacity to field real questions from real journalists.” Real journalists, of course, have tripped Trump up before: most notably in 2017, when NBC’s Lester Holt pressed Trump on his decision to fire James Comey. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote of the Stephanopoulos sit-down, “Sometimes it takes a protracted session with one journalist to get to the heart of things.”

Given that it embarrassed the president and won plaudits for his mainstream-media interviewer (who, for good measure, used to work in the Clinton administration), you’d think that Trump would have reacted furiously to the release of the interview. But you’d (mostly) be wrong. On Saturday, the president tweeted that the “Fake News Media” had distorted his words, but also said he “enjoyed” the interview and pledged to do more like it to “get the word out” about his presidency: “It is called Earned Media,” he wrote. Trump’s tweets seemed to vindicate Politico’s Michael Calderone and Nancy Cook, who wrote last week that Trump—who will formally launch his 2020 campaign tomorrow—sees network interviews as an opportunity to reach out beyond his base, and to dominate a news cycle that’s increasingly driven by his Democratic opponents.

Granting more traditional media access is the president’s prerogative, of course. If tough questions are asked, it isn’t a bad thing. And yet the networks should be careful that they don’t allow Trump to play them. Since Trump last (formally) ran for office, many media-watchers have argued that his campaign rallies and set-piece speeches should not be broadcast live because they contain so many falsehoods. Network interviews are different: they aren’t normally live, and an interlocutor is present to provide scrutiny. But Trump often lies at such a fast pace that even the best interviewer can’t push back on every falsehood in real time. Stephanopoulos certainly did not.

Stephanopoulos did grill Trump on many important topics, and ABC, by and large, did a decent job contextualizing and dripping out the interview’s most newsworthy portions. And yet viewers watching the whole thing (which aired last night) still heard the president say things that aren’t true—and ABC’s transcript of the interview, for instance, is not annotated to point out all the falsehoods. In 2016, Trump exploited “earned media” prolifically: he drove home false talking points, often without challenge, on mainstream networks. This time, we should ensure that the challenge is as sharp as possible. With Trump, an interviewer alone isn’t always enough.

Below, more on Trump:

  • A further escalation: On Saturday, Trump accused The New York Times of a “virtual act of treason” after the paper reported that his administration has been stepping up its digital attacks on Russia’s electric power grid. Trump’s claim was dangerous, and also nonsensical: the Times made clear that “Officials at the National Security Council declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting.”
  • Holding the cards: Friday was Trump’s 73rd birthday. According to The Daily Beast’s  Lachlan Markay, some of ABC’s biggest affiliate stations posted content on their websites linking to a “birthday card” for the president—but the “card” was actually “a petition website created by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee to harvest email addresses that can be used during the 2020 campaign.” The ABC affiliate sites took their story down.
  • The escalator ride: Yesterday was the four-year anniversary of Trump riding down the escalator in Trump Tower and declaring his run for the White House. Politico’s Michael Kruse has an oral history of “the escalator ride that changed America.” And on CNN, McKay Coppins, of The Atlantic, reflected on what he got wrong—and right—in his 2014 profile of Trump.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Right-wing publications launder an anti-journalist smear campaign

Update: This post has been updated to clarify that Kim Goldman is Ron Goldman’s sister.

No male editor has ever accepted my pitches on abortion

June 17, 2019 - 5:50am
In the wake of the near-total ban on abortion that passed last month in Alabama, and “heartbeat” bills recently passed in Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Georgia, I have seen a flurry of panicked abortion coverage. The Supreme Court and federal courts have been remade for a generation, and conservative judges will almost certainly incrementally whittle […]

How many really marched in Hong Kong? And how should we best guess crowd size?

June 14, 2019 - 12:54pm
The crowd of protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday stretched more than a mile. As the city’s legislature considered a bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong, which is semi-autonomous, to China, Civil Human Rights Front, the group that organized the demonstration, estimated that more than a million people had come out to march. […]

After two inglorious years, Sarah Huckabee Sanders will leave the White House

June 14, 2019 - 7:05am

Last June, CBS News reported that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and Raj Shah, her deputy, were planning to quit the Trump administration. They stuck it out longer than expected. Shah left in January. Yesterday—exactly a year after the original CBS report—we learned that Sanders will depart at the end of this month. President Trump tweeted the news and Sanders did the same: a mode of communication that has characterized Sanders’s time as White House spokesperson.

Sanders took over as press secretary in July 2017, following the ouster of Sean Spicer. Sanders showed more endurance, but her performance has been no better than Spicer’s was. In her two inglorious years on the job, Sanders barred reporters who asked tough questions; promoted Trump’s bogus “fake news awards”; fell in line with the president’s anti-press, “enemy of the people” rhetoric; and routinely disparaged the intelligence and integrity of the journalists in the White House briefing room. She also lied a lot. Sanders said that Trump never encouraged violence (he did) and that he won an “overwhelming majority” of votes in 2016 (he did not). In April, the Mueller report confirmed that in May 2017, Sanders (who was then the deputy press secretary) knowingly misled reporters when she claimed—twice—that “countless” FBI staffers supported Trump’s firing of James Comey. Sanders told Mueller’s office that the claim was “not founded on anything”; it was a “slip of the tongue” that she then repeated “in the heat of the moment,” she said. How did Sanders respond to her confession becoming public? She reiterated the false claim.

ICYMI: Right-wing publications launder an anti-journalist smear campaign

Still, Sanders may not be remembered for her lies as much as her absence. “Last month, reporters noticed that there was literally a coating of dust on the press briefing room podium,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote last night. “That is Sanders’s legacy.” On her watch, the televised White House briefing, a fixture under previous administrations, has all but gone extinct. Earlier this year, Sanders set a record for the longest time without a formal briefing since the practice began. Then she beat her own record—twice. If she doesn’t brief soon, next Wednesday will mark 100 days since Sanders last faced reporters at the podium. (She did stand there in late April, but it was only for a “bring your kids to work day” stunt that she declared off the record.) In the absence of briefings, White House reporters have had to chase Sanders down on the White House driveway to ask questions, usually following her interviews with Fox News.

Fox could be a logical next step for Sanders: ex-administration figures often take contributor gigs on cable news, and Sanders has already said that she plans to remain “one of the most outspoken and loyal supporters of the president and his agenda” outside the White House. (CNN reportedly has no interest in Sanders; it’s hard to imagine MSNBC would want her, either.) Trump, in his tweet, encouraged Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas, a post previously occupied by her father, Mike Huckabee; according to CNN, Sanders is thinking seriously about a bid, though there won’t be a vacancy until 2022.

As far as the White House press secretary job is concerned, CNN’s Stelter writes that who replaces Sanders is anyone’s guess. Trump could promote her deputy, Hogan Gidley, or he could look to an outside booster such as Laura Ingraham. (Stranger things have happened: remember Anthony Scaramucci?) The president, who has gone without a communications chief since March, may decline to fill the post. Why would he need a press secretary, when he believes himself to be his own best messenger?

Below, more on Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the White House communications team:

  • What was the point?: Several commentators, including NYU’s Jay Rosen and Mike Allen, of Axios, have argued that briefings, when they happen, are a waste of journalists’ time anyway. Others have countered that, despite the lies from the podium, briefings give reporters an opportunity to confront the administration. Last year, CJR’s Pete Vernon wrote that a briefing “is a testament to the idea that no one is above having to explain themselves. That makes it worth saving.”
  • What Sanders said about Trump: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber writes that Sanders “broke the news” during her time as press secretary. “Her tenure serves as a reminder of what happens when partisanship, aided by the power of the presidency, is allowed to subsume everything else: traditions, norms, truth, people’s lives,” Garber writes.
  • A change of strategy: The White House Correspondents’ Association will soon elect a new president. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes that the leading candidates—S.V. Date, of HuffPost, and Steven Portnoy, of CBS News—plan to take a bolder, more confrontational approach to misinformation. (A third candidate,  Toluse Olorunnipa, of the Post, has yet to outline his plans.)
  • Game, set, Hatch?: Kellyanne Conway’s name has been touted as a possible replacement for Sanders. Yesterday, the office of special counsel recommended that Conway should be removed as a White House aide for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their position to engage in partisan activities. Trump looks like he will ignore the recommendation: yesterday, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, called it “as outrageous as it is unprecedented.”


Other notable stories:

  • Trump’s admission, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, that he would accept a foreign government’s offer of dirt on a presidential rival and not tell the FBI about it, drove the news cycle yesterday. Trump’s remarks added distressing detail to what has been established in the Mueller report on interference in the 2016 election, and bodes poorly for 2020.
  • The Democratic National Committee confirmed yesterday that Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Steve Bullock, and Mike Gravel have failed to qualify for the first presidential debate; today, the 20 candidates who did qualify will be divided into groups of 10 that will debate on June 26 and June 27, respectively. For CJR, Jason Plautz explores the DNC’s refusal to host a debate dedicated to climate change: “While sixty-second answers won’t allow candidates to get far beyond the top-line goals of their climate-change plans, filling 90 minutes of debate time would force each to reckon with the differences between their plans.” On Wednesday, activists delivered a petition for a climate debate, signed by 200,000 people, to the DNC.
  • When it comes to capturing public and press attention, Reid J. Epstein writes, for the Times, that Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have outmaneuvered the other Democratic candidates for president, “demonstrating an innate understanding of the value of viral moments and nonstop exposure that drive politics in the Trump era.” Buttigieg has done so by emphasizing his personal background; Warren has inundated reporters with policy ideas. Both have climbed in the polls.
  • Yesterday, Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior minister, confirmed that he signed off on the US government’s request to extradite Julian Assange, who is currently in jail in London. Today, the signed order will go before a British court. Assange faces an 18-count indictment in the US, most of which falls under the Espionage Act; last month, press-freedom experts called the indictment a “terrifying” threat to journalism. Sweden had also hoped to extradite Assange, to face a rape investigation, but a Swedish court ruled last week that Assange does not need to be detained in the country after all.
  • In Turkey, prosecutors have charged Kerim Karakaya and Fercan Yalinkilic, two Bloomberg journalists, with attempting to undermine the country’s economic stability; the pair had reported last year on the official response to a severe currency shock in Turkey. The same indictment targets 36 other people “for social media comments on the story, or comments deemed critical of Turkey’s economy and banks,” Bloomberg reports.
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick looks at two Congressional bills intended to help out the news industry: one would allow publishers to team up to demand better financial terms from big tech platforms; the other would make it easier for news organizations to seek nonprofit status.
  • Last month, Corey Hutchins reported for CJR from La Plata County, Colorado—an“orphan county,” where residents get irrelevant political news from a TV market based outside their home state. This week, following pressure from Cory Gardner, Colorado’s Republican senator, the Federal Communications Commission signaled that it will grant La Plata County residents access to Denver’s TV market instead.
  • And the Mirror Awards, given by Syracuse University to celebrate reporting on the media industry, were announced yesterday. CJR was among the winners: Sarah Jones won for her piece about class and journalism. Ronan Farrow, of The New Yorker, won for his work exposing sexual misconduct by Les Moonves, who subsequently stepped down from CBS. Farrow addressed those gathered at the ceremony: “I see some people [here] who have lied to protect power,” he said.

ICYMI: NYT promotes questionable study on Google and the media

Environmental journalists know the value of a climate debate

June 14, 2019 - 5:55am
Climate change has become a defining issue in the early Democratic presidential primary. But the Democratic National Committee has rebuffed calls to hold a dedicated debate on the topic, raising concerns that the issue will once more remain siloed during an election cycle. DNC chairman Tom Perez wrote on Medium this week that the party […]

Podcast: Public Editor Emily Tamkin on CNN’s underqualified pundits

June 13, 2019 - 4:33pm
On this week’s episode, CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope speaks with Emily Tamkin, our CNN public editor, about CJR’s new public editor initiative. Tamkin asks why CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time continues to invite supposed experts who aren’t in the administration, can’t be held accountable to anyone, don’t have relevant expertise, and refuse to answer […]

In Italy, Five Star Movement’s war on journalism is picking up pace

June 13, 2019 - 10:27am
In May, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which leads Italy’s government, voted to cut funding to Radio Radicale, a radio station that has broadcast parliamentary debates, votes, and court cases since 1975. Five Star, which governs in a coalition with a far-right party called Lega, has moved to cut both the funding and the authorization […]

If readers pay for your news, you’re one of the lucky ones

June 13, 2019 - 7:02am

Every year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which is based at Oxford University in the UK, comes out with its Digital News Report, a survey of global trends and attitudes towards online news. Depending on your position in the media industry, it can be either good news or bad news. According to the latest edition, which came out Wednesday morning, if you’re a prosperous digital giant with a well-established subscription program, then you are probably in great shape, thanks to the growth of digital and mobile consumption of the news. If you’re a small publisher that still relies predominantly on print and your subscription plan still isn’t lucrative, however, the report is probably going to cause nightmares. As Facebook and Google continue to vacuum up the lion’s share of digital advertising around the globe, the landscape is looking increasingly barren for any publisher that isn’t already a market leader. (Google helps fund the Reuters report.)

One of the big headlines from the study is that, despite the efforts of news publishers to pivot away from advertising revenue and focus more on subscriptions and membership plans, there has only been a tiny increase in the number of people who pay for online news in any form in the past year, and the bulk of what little growth did occur came primarily in Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden. In the US, the so-called “Trump bump,” which led many news consumers to sign up for subscriptions to newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, seems to have slowed into a virtual flat line. The number of people who paid for news in the US jumped sharply in 2017, the Reuters report says, but it currently remains relatively “stable” (i.e. it isn’t growing) at 16 percent of the population.

On a related note, the study found that even in countries where fairly large numbers of news consumers pay for their news, the vast majority of those consumers only have a single subscription. As the report points out, this phenomenon—which turns subscription revenue into a scarce resource that virtually every other news outlet is also fighting for—suggests that there is a “winner take all” aspect to online news. That might benefit the Times or the Post, or newspapers like The Guardian in the UK, but as those outlets grow stronger, their smaller competitors could find it even more difficult to sign up new subscribers, no matter how good their coverage is. Some media analysts believe there is a distinct possibility that this could create a polarized market, where the big get bigger and the small get smaller, and those in the middle either dramatically change their models or die out.

The Reuters study also suggests that news publishers aren’t just competing with other news outlets for subscribers. As more and more consumers—particularly younger ones, the kind the news industry is most interested in attracting—are looking to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify to serve their entertainment needs, there is a risk that even in markets where people don’t mind paying for news, a form of “subscription fatigue” may be developing. In this environment, “publishers may struggle to substantially increase the market for high-priced single-title subscriptions,” the Reuters report says. And publishers who are doing everything they can to sign up as many readers as possible could be exacerbating this problem by hitting consumers with paywalls more frequently. Reuters says that, in the US, about half of those surveyed said they now hit a pay barrier at least once a week.

If you’re desperate for a little good news, the study found that while trust in the news in general is down 2 percentage points to 42 percent across all countries, and less than half of those surveyed said they trust the news sources they use regularly, there are signs that these low levels of trust are helping move people towards more reputable sources of news. Across all of the countries surveyed, more than 25 percent said that they have started relying on more reputable sources, and in the US about 40 percent of those surveyed said they were doing the same (The study says the interpretation of “reputable” was left to respondents to determine.) How this particular statistic is likely to affect your media business depends on whether you are one of the reputable sources people are heading towards, or one of the not-so-reputable sources that readers are busy heading away from.

Here’s more on the state of digital news:

  • Print’s long decline: The Reuters report isn’t the only significant survey of digital media trends to come out this week. Mary Meeker is a veteran technology analyst who recently left the VC fund Kleiner Perkins to start her own fund, and she releases a 300-plus page overview of the internet market every year that companies and investors routinely scan for details. Nieman Lab founder Josh Benton scans the Meeker report every year for data on the state of print advertising, and every year the data gets worse.
  • Active avoiders: Damian Radcliffe of the site What’s New In Publishing has picked out what he believes are the five essential charts from the Reuters media report that publishers need to pay attention to, including the fact that almost a third of those surveyed for the report say that they “actively avoid the news.” That’s up by 3 percentage points from when Reuters asked the same question last year. How can publishers convince more readers to subscribe to their sites if a significant proportion are no longer interested in news at all?
  • Congress cares: The backdrop to the Reuters study is, of course, the dominance of digital giants like Google and Facebook, which Congress is currently holding hearings into, with a view towards possible antitrust action against either one or both. During Tuesday’s hearings, the media got a shout out from several congressmen, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman David Cicilline, who asked: “If online news publishers can’t survive, then who can?”
  • The youngs: Not everyone was depressed by the Reuters study. Mark Little, a former Irish TV Correspondent who founded the social-media verification service Storyful and now has a news curation startup called Kinzen, says there are encouraging signs that younger news consumers are more interested in reputable sources, share less fake news and are more interested in paying for news than older consumers.

 Other notable stories:

  • Jared Holt writes for CJR about how a number of media outlets ran stories about a study that allegedly showed sinister connections between antifascist activists and some reporters who cover the far-right. But while he identified himself as an online extremism researcher, the author of the study is an established right-wing troll who has been banned from Twitter for running multiple fake accounts.
  • The publisher of the Loudoun Tribune admitted Monday that he lied to investors about the newspaper’s financial health. Brian Reynolds launched the Tribune in 2016 as a free newspaper and eventually raised more than $500,000, in part by claiming he had invested nearly $1 million of his own money and had almost the same amount in ad contracts. In reality, he only invested a few thousand dollars and the contracts were forged. Reynolds pleaded guilty to fraud and also to illegally possessing guns.
  • Jennifer Brandel, cofounder and CEO of Hearken, writes about a project she is working on with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, aimed at developing a “citizens agenda” model for campaign coverage. Instead of a traditional approach focusing on horse-race coverage and salacious details, Brandel says the project will turn to voters themselves and ask them what kind of coverage they need in order to cast an informed vote. “No longer can we presume to understand what our public needs from us,” Brandel writes.
  • Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed writes about a seemingly innocuous photo of a get-together of tech luminaries used by GQ magazine to illustrate a feature story about a group of wealthy travellers making a pilgrimage to the Italian HQ of luxury designer Brunello Cucinelli. Mac noticed that the photo appeared to have been Photoshopped. The original was all men, but later two women (who were also on the trip but not in the photo) were added. GQ has since removed the photo and added a note to the story saying a picture was removed because it didn’t meet the publication’s standards.
  • Cinnamon Janzer writes for CJR about meteorologists on local TV stations who have gotten into trouble—either with viewers or their station owners, and in some cases both—for breaking into TV programs with alerts about tornados and other serious weather events. A video clip of Jamie Simpson, a meteorologist at an Ohio station, went viral after he talked back to viewers who complained about his alerts interrupting The Bachelorette.
  • The news that US consumers actually read doesn’t always match up with what they say they want covered more, according to data from traffic analytics company Parse.ly and a poll conducted by Axios. Data from more than 2,000 sites that use Parse.ly showed that in May, demand was highest for news about politics and government, followed by sports and immigration. But most consumers said they actually wanted more news about health care, followed by climate and education—topics that ranked 7th, 5th, and 11th in terms of demand.
  • On Tuesday, the Arizona Daily Star published an opinion piece written by a local public defender, about how prosecutors in Arizona keep killing criminal-justice reform bills. The piece was quickly deleted from the newspaper’s website following a phone call from county prosecutor Sheila Polk, who said the article was not accurate about her voting record. According to a report from the Phoenix New Times, however, emails show that Polk did vote against a justice reform bill. The Daily Star has republished the op-ed piece with a note saying a passage was removed that “didn’t meet our standards for attribution.”
  • Leveraged buyout firm KKR wants to take German newspaper publisher Axel Springer private, according to Bloomberg. The firm has made an offer that values the media company at $7.7 billion. Springer is controlled by Friede Springer, whose late husband started the publishing company, and CEO Mathias Doepfner. Springer, which bought Business Insider in 2015 for $343 million, has seen its stock price weaken over the past year as shareholders have grown nervous about the impact that Google and Facebook are having on newspapers and digital advertising.

Two new bills in Congress propose a helping hand for a hurting industry

June 13, 2019 - 5:55am
As the news industry continues to suffer layoffs and sinking profits, efforts are afoot in Congress to lend a hand. In recent months, two bills have been introduced that aim to help publications reassert themselves amid a challenging market, and a group of congress members, lead by Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat from California, have dedicated […]

Right-wing publications launder an anti-journalist smear campaign

June 12, 2019 - 12:30pm
Last month, a number of media outlets ran stories touting claims from a study posted on Twitter that alleged nefarious connections between antifascist activists and national-level reporters who cover the far-right. On May 15, Eoin Lenihan, a far-right social media user presented what he said were excerpts from a data set that proved prominent reporters […]

Severe weather pits meteorologists against some viewers

June 12, 2019 - 11:50am
“No! We’re not going back to the show, folks,” Jamie Simpson, an Ohio-based meteorologist, said on-air last month. Simpson had attracted criticism on social media after interrupting The Bachelorette to broadcast tornado warnings in late May, and decided to address dissatisfied viewers directly. “I’m sick and tired of people complaining about this,” he said. “Our […]

Dem debate rules push candidates, and the media, away from what matters

June 12, 2019 - 7:03am

Under Democratic National Committee rules, today is the deadline for 20 candidates to qualify for the first Democratic presidential debate. Two weeks from today, 10 candidates will line up against each other in Miami. The following night, 10 other candidates will take their turn.

To get there, candidates had to secure donations from 65,000 people, register 1 percent in three recognized polls, or both. Conveniently, exactly 20 candidates appear to have qualified so far, 14 of whom say they have passed both thresholds. I’d list them, but it’s quicker to name the candidates who look set to miss out: Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida; Seth Moulton, a Congressman from Massachusetts; Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana; and (if you’re counting him) Mike Gravel, the former Alaska senator. In theory, Bullock could still pass the polling threshold; if he does, the DNC will invoke tie-breaker rules to settle on the final line-up of 20, which will be announced later this week. The qualifying candidates will be divided across two nights of the debate based on a “random” allocation that will also ensure “an even mix of candidates” each night, NBC reports.

ICYMI: Meet your new public editors

Both nights will run for two hours in primetime on NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. Yesterday, we learned a little more about the format. Lester Holt will appear during both hours on both nights. For the first hour of each debate, he’ll be joined by his NBC colleague Savannah Guthrie and José Diaz-Balart, an anchor on Telemundo. For the second hour, Chuck Todd, also of NBC, and Rachel Maddow, of MSNBC, will appear alongside Holt. Progressive groups applauded the diversity of that line-up, although, as Bakari Sellers, an analyst on CNN, pointed out, it does not feature a black woman. Maddow is the curveball—she’s an opinionator, not a news reporter, and she has already made some of her thoughts about the Democratic field known. Maddow did help host a Democratic primary debate in 2016, Michael M. Grynbaum reports for The New York Times; nonetheless, he writes, “opinion journalists are rarely chosen to interrogate candidates in the formal setting of a debate stage.”

In recent weeks, a mini news cycle has developed around the qualification rules, as candidates have had to clamor to stand out. Kirsten Gillibrand called the 65,000-donor threshold “random and inaccurate”; Bullock, a late entrant into the race, said that it had penalized him for prioritizing his work as governor. Last week, Tom Perez, chair of the DNC, rebuffed criticism: he told CNN that candidates for president have to be proficient grassroots fundraisers. As several outlets have reported, however, imposing such a requirement at this early stage of the race has radically changed how smaller campaigns have operated—instead of building infrastructure in states like Iowa, they’ve had to plow resources into Facebook ads to attract further donors. According to the Times, acquiring one $1 donor can cost a campaign $40 and up; according to Vice, candidates have collectively paid Facebook over $1 million a week. This picture is only likely to get worse for candidates: the DNC recently doubled the threshold to qualify for the third primary debate, which will occur in September, to 130,000 donors.

The debate subjects, meanwhile, have themselves been subject to debate. Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who has built his campaign around climate change, requested that a whole debate be dedicated to that topic; the DNC said no and warned Inslee he would be penalized if he participated in any external climate debate. Yesterday, Perez wrote on Medium that granting Inslee’s request would have been unfair. But at least 10 other candidates want a climate debate, too. And Perez’s premise that climate is an “issue” is misplaced. As Naomi Klein tweeted last week, “Climate is not an ‘issue’—it’s the backdrop for all other issues.”

These qualification and format questions are political, but they also matter for the media. Ahead of 2020, there’s been much discussion of the need to keep the focus on policy. That’s our job as journalists, but the DNC’s rules aren’t helping. The donor threshold has driven candidates to chase “viral moments” that boost their popularity online; the lack of a climate debate, and the logic behind the decision, cuts against the idea of useful, substantive discussion. And the debates themselves could easily descend into an unfocused, noisy mud fight. Lester, Savannah, José, Chuck, and Rachel: no pressure.

Below, more on the debates and the Democratic race:

  • A pessimistic prediction: The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman writes that the debates will be “awful.” With so many candidates on stage, each will have comparatively little time to speak. Those further down the polls, in particular, could resort to sensational, viral-ready behavior to get attention. “When the cameras are on you, you have to find a way to stand out,” Waldman writes. “And reasoned, careful argumentation is probably not going to be it.”
  • Fighting for airtime: Politico’s Michael Calderone reports that “no podcast is too small” as Democratic candidates jockey for attention in the fragmented field. “Podcasts, late-night programs and web shows are increasingly serving as off-ramps from the daily news churn, offering candidates opportunities for more freewheeling conversations and showing off their personalities or pop culture bonafides to a variety of audiences,” Calderone writes.
  • A local angle: For CJR, Susannah Jacob talked to journalists from Texas, where two local politicians—Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro—are running for president. “National reporters’ dizzying task grows with each new Democratic contender, and Texas reporters don’t envy them. ‘Being a part of local press removes us from that conversation, and I think that’s really good,’” The Texas Tribune’s Abby Livingston tells Jacob.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, CJR appointed four public editors who will, respectively, act as watchdogs for the Times, the Post, CNN, and MSNBC. On Twitter, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, answered questions about the initiatives; we rounded up the answers here. In her first column, Emily Tamkin, our public editor for CNN, weighs in on Chris Cuomo’s recent interviews with Kimberly Guilfoyle, an adviser to the Trump campaign, and Christopher Ruddy, the Trump-pal CEO of Newsmax. “If the people being interviewed aren’t in the administration, can’t be held accountable to anyone, don’t have relevant expertise, and refuse to answer a host’s questions, what’s their value?” Tamkin asks.
  • Last week, Russian police detained and beat Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist with Meduza, on charges of drug possession. Golunov says they were planted. His arrest sparked a vocal campaign of protest across Russia’s media. Yesterday, authorities released Golunov and dropped the charges against him. The climbdown, experts say, demonstrates the limits of state power in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite the country’s worsening press-freedom climate.
  • Yesterday, a House antitrust panel kicked off its investigation into possible anticompetitive conduct by big tech companies with a hearing focused on the effect Google and Facebook’s dominance of online advertising has had on the news industry. David Cicilline, a Democrat, and Doug Collins, a Republican, have co-authored legislation that would allow publishers to band together to demand better terms from the platforms. Media critics are divided on the merits of the bill. The Post’s Margaret Sullivan strongly supports it. Politico’s Jack Shafer strongly does not.
  • Last month, Facebook refused to take down a viral video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had been doctored to make Pelosi sound drunk. Mark Zuckerberg reached out to Pelosi to discuss the episode, but, according to the Post, Pelosi has no interest in calling him back. Over the weekend, a fake video of Zuckerberg was posted on Instagram, which Facebook owns. Some observers wondered whether the company’s response might show a double standard. An Instagram spokesperson told CNN that it will treat the Zuckerberg video “the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram.”
  • The Post and The Hollywood Reporter are both out with profiles of Gayle King, host of CBS This Morning, whose stock has risen following a series of well-received interviews and a reshuffle of on-air talent at CBS. Robin Givhan writes, for the Post, that King “is, perhaps, what the culture needs right now: a soothing voice of reason, an adult who isn’t drowning in cynicism, who is still capable of being let down by her fellow humans if only because she still has faith in them.” Marisa Guthrie’s Hollywood Reporter cover story will be out online today.
  • In Nicaragua, Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda Ubau—journalists with 100% Noticias, a news station that was shut down last year—were released from prison as part of amnesty designed to ease tensions between the government of Daniel Ortega and the opposition. Two men convicted of killing a journalist were also freed—the journalist’s family believes the men are innocent and that police officers were behind the killing. In November, Charles Davis charted Nicaragua’s totalitarian press climate for CJR.
  • And David Bernhardt, the interior secretary, gave an accidental interview to The Colorado Independent. Bernhardt thought he was talking to his hometown Glenwood Springs Post-Independent; once he realized he had the wrong paper, Bernhardt agreed to an abbreviated conversation with The Colorado Independent. He told reporter Alex Burness that he doesn’t think climate change poses a threat to national parks.

ICYMI: NYT promotes questionable study on Google and the media

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that Lester Holt will appear during both hours of both nights of the first Democratic debate. A previous version said Holt would anchor both hours of both nights.

Headlines editors probably wish they could take back

June 12, 2019 - 5:50am
IN THIS WEEK’S LOWERCASE… Most unintentionally funny headline of the day goes to: #Drinkwater pic.twitter.com/7n2gWOMVlc — Lewis Hill (@LewisMHill) April 9, 2019 Does he hold a lottery or pic.twitter.com/BS8rSCakwI — Thickie Don (@AstrosCounty) June 5, 2019 ICYMI: NYT promotes questionable study on Google and the media

Answering your questions about CJR’s new public editors

June 11, 2019 - 3:37pm
Following our announcement of four new public editors, journalists wanted to know more about the project. Our Editor in Chief and Publisher Kyle Pope has addressed some questions we’ve received: Are we partnering with the outlets we’re covering? I'm a little confused — have these outlets agreed to treat these journalists as public editors and publish their […]

CNN Public Editor: The Value for the Viewer

June 11, 2019 - 2:02pm
In March, as Chris Cuomo made the toss from his primetime show to Don Lemon’s CNN Tonight, Cuomo reflected on an interview with Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, that he had just wrapped. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kellyanne less effective in defense of the president than she was tonight,” he said. “Here’s […]

Covering the candidates in Texas

June 11, 2019 - 10:19am
A Texas reporter has heard it all before. “He’s been doing the same stump speech since the beginning of the Senate race,” Patrick Svitek, a political reporter for The Texas Tribune, tells me of Beto O’Rourke. Svitek, who has been on the O’Rourke beat for more than two years, belongs to a group of veteran […]

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