Columbia Journalism Review
Yesterday, Marty Baron announced that he’s retiring as editor of the Washington Post, effective at the end of February. Baron arrived at the Post eight years ago after spells as executive editor at the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe (the latter immortalized by Liev Schreiber in Spotlight). In that time, the Post won ten Pulitzer prizes, was bought out by the billionaire Jeff Bezos, roughly doubled the size of its newsroom (which is still expanding), and adapted to the demands of the internet; the paper now has around three million digital subscribers, more than triple its 2016 total. It’s long been rumored in media circles that Baron planned to step down sometime after the 2020 election. Yesterday, he told Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Post, that his job is exhausting, and that he’s ready to move on. “With the internet being so big a part of it, it’s twenty-four/seven, three-sixty-five,” Baron said. “It means you never really get to disconnect.”
In the hours after his announcement, tributes to Baron’s leadership poured in. Barton Gellman, a former national-security reporter at the Post (who is now at The Atlantic), praised Baron’s handling, in 2013, of the secrets that Edward Snowden leaked about the National Security Agency and shared with Gellman and others. “I remember thinking he might throw me out of his office when I laid out my outlandish conditions—a windowless room, a heavy safe, encrypted email and so on—for bringing the Snowden documents to the Post,” Gellman told Farhi, but “every choice he made came from a place of courage and common sense and journalistic integrity.” (That wouldn’t be the last big national-security story that Baron would shepherd: in 2019, the Post published the Afghanistan Papers, a huge project revealing the deceptions behind America’s longest war. Thanks to the Trump news cycle, it did not get the sustained attention it deserved.) Jason Rezaian, a Post reporter who spent more than five-hundred days in jail in Iran, hailed Baron, who worked to secure his release, as a “tireless advocate in public and behind closed doors.” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, who had a friendly rivalry with Baron, said he “made every institution he touched better.” Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Post, called Baron “a truly outstanding editor” and said that “American citizens owe him a standing ovation.” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, argued that during the Trump era, Baron made the Post “a more essential read” than the Times. I agree.
Not that everything has gone smoothly for Baron—in recent months, in particular, the Post has had to reckon with newsroom tensions around issues of race, representation, and the treatment of its staff. A year ago this week, Baron suspended Felicia Sonmez, a politics reporter at the paper, and upbraided her for “a real lack of judgment” after she tweeted (innocuously) about a past rape allegation against the basketball star Kobe Bryant in the hours after Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash. Hundreds of Sonmez’s colleagues signed a letter supporting her, accusing Post management of seeking repeatedly to “control” Sonmez’s speech on sexual violence, and of failing to protect her after her Bryant tweet triggered a wave of threats and abuse against her. A few days later, Sonmez was reinstated; Baron pledged a review of the Post’s social-media policies, but did not apologize. This was not an isolated incident: around the same time, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported that Baron had also censured Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer prize-winning Post journalist, over his tweets about media coverage of race. At the time, Lowery did not directly address the story, but did tweet asking, “What’s the point of bringing diverse experiences and voices into a room only to muzzle them?” He has since left the Post for CBS, and been a leading voice in the industry-wide debate about the meaning of “objectivity.” (Yesterday, Lowery tweeted a smiley face twenty minutes after Baron’s retirement was confirmed.)
Last April, the findings of a report about the Post’s social-media policies circulated internally; it concluded, based on interviews with staff, that management may be quicker to forgive the indiscretions of “white men and newsroom stars” than those of “women, minorities, and less high-profile reporters.” Such iniquities haven’t been limited to social media. In 2019, the Post’s union conducted a pay study and found that women and people of color in the newsroom earned less than white men; last summer, a number of Black journalists who had left the Post spoke out, online and in interviews with Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, about what they perceived to be barriers to their professional advancement at the paper. “This place just seems to run off its best people,” Soraya Nadia McDonald, who left the Post for The Undefeated, a site owned by ESPN, told Smith. (In the same, mammoth story on tensions at the paper, Smith reported that Baron killed a story that Bob Woodward wanted to run outing the then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as a liar, and was left infuriated by an article the Post ran about people getting high before watching the movie Cats, which he felt “glorified recreational drug use.”) The Post has since filled new editorial roles focused on race—including the post of managing editor for diversity and inclusion that was filled by Krissah Thompson, a veteran of the paper—but, as Business Insider’s Steven Perlberg reported recently, numerous Post staffers feel that the internal reckoning is incomplete. In his exit note, Baron acknowledged that, despite “progress,” the Post still needs “a wider diversity of life experiences and backgrounds represented in our newsroom and reflected in our coverage.”
Baron’s departure doesn’t just come at a natural inflection point in the national political news cycle, but at a moment of philosophical introspection for the news business. The calls for a new approach by Lowery and others have often been caricatured, by traditionalists, as a capitulation of rigor and fairness to subjectivity and opinion, but in reality, rigor is central to the reformers’ vision—recognizing the flawed assumptions of the old model of objectivity isn’t inimical to hard-hitting journalism, but should bolster it. The Post isn’t the only outlet to have initiated a changing of the guard since this broader conversation started, but it is the most powerful to be seeking a new top editor, and the paper now has an opportunity to prove that righting the errors of Baron’s approach will only strengthen his legacy as an editorial powerhouse. As Smith noted last year, Baron’s tenure has been defined by a “steadfast adherence to the longstanding rules of newspaper journalism and the defense of the institution.” I wrote at the time that assessing the merit and continued relevance of those rules requires seeing them as separate from the institution. That will soon be someone else’s job.
Below, more media jobs news:
- The Post: Last month, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported on speculation as to who might be in the running to succeed Baron. Kevin Merida, who served as a managing editor at the Post and is now editor in chief of The Undefeated and a senior executive at ESPN, and Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s current national editor, are thought to be the favorites, though Pompeo noted that a recruitment process had not begun at time of writing. (Baron, for his part, plans to take a “breather” before deciding what he’ll do next.)
- The Economist: James Bennet—who was ousted as the Times’s opinion editor last year after his section ran a controversial op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton—is joining The Economist as a visiting senior editor for a year; he plans to write on foreign policy and advise on broader digital initiatives. Last week, the Times confirmed that Kathleen Kingsbury, who replaced Bennet as opinion editor on an interim basis, will keep that job permanently.
- TheTimes: Lauren Wolfe, who lost her job as an editor at the Times after tweeting last week that watching Joe Biden’s plane land on inauguration day gave her “chills,” has spoken publicly about her treatment. The Times noted that Wolfe only worked for the paper on an informal basis, and denied parting ways with her “over a single tweet,” but Wolfe told Erik Wemple, of the Post, that—while a manager had warned her about her Twitter once before—the chills missive was “the only reason they fired me.” Wolfe feels that the Times’s statement about her termination was inappropriate. “Whatever they’re implying,” she said, “it’s a shot at my reputation, which I worked very carefully to build.”
- The Idaho Statesman: On Monday, McClatchy fired Christina Lords, the editor of the Idaho Statesman. The paper’s union said afterward that Lords was fired for tweeting her frustration at being unable to procure access to Microsoft Excel for a new hire; yesterday, Lords gave the same account to the Post. In an open letter, Kristin Roberts, vice president of news at McClatchy, said that the company wouldn’t share details of a personnel matter, but said that it has “never terminated anyone’s employment because they were vocal about concerns or because they advocate for staff.” Roberts said that she spoke with Lords about the possibility of her returning to her job “as a leader committed to solving problems together,” but Lords declined. Lords said that she appreciated the gesture, but that McClatchy’s offer entailed “certain stipulations I did not feel comfortable agreeing to.”
- CBS: Over the weekend, Meg James, of the Los Angeles Times, published a two-part investigation focused on Peter Dunn, the president of CBS Television Stations—one story looked at a deal to acquire a station that came with an exclusive golf-club membership thrown in; the other alleged that Dunn and David Friend, his lieutenant, “cultivated a hostile work environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists.” On Monday, CBS placed Dunn and Friend on administrative leave pending an investigation.
- Fox: Yesterday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported that Kayleigh McEnany, the former White House press secretary, revealed in a recent disclosure report that she had reached an “employment agreement” with Fox News, starting this month—though a Fox spokesperson denied that the network currently employs McEnany. Fox definitely has hired Larry Kudlow, a senior economic adviser to Trump, as a contributor. He’ll also host a show on Fox Business.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, all but five Republican senators voted to dismiss Trump’s impeachment trial as unconstitutional; the trial will go ahead, but the prospects for conviction, which would require at least seventeen Republican votes, now look slim. That’s a sharp change from two weeks ago, when media reports breathlessly suggested that senior Republicans were minded to break with Trump. Declan Garvey, an editor at The Dispatch, noted yesterday that there was “legitimate momentum” for a break back then. “That it stalled so quickly is a testament to the power of partisanship and right-wing media.”
- Adam Serwer, of The Atlantic, reminds journalists and the public that “Biden will lie to you,” because lying is a thing presidents do. “The press and the public should resist the temptation to assume that the Biden administration will always be on the level, or that its dishonesties can be forgiven because Biden’s predecessor wielded falsehood with such abandon,” Serwer writes. “Already, Biden has sought to mislead the public by setting expectations for vaccinations that experts have said are too modest—which will allow the president to declare his approach a great success if the goal is exceeded.”
- Leon Black is stepping down as chief executive of Apollo Global Management—a private-equity firm that, on the media front, financed Gatehouse’s merger with Gannett and acquired local TV stations from Cox Media—following a review into payments, totalling more than $150 million, that he made to the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The review found that the payments—which, the Times reports, “effectively bankrolled” Epstein’s post-conviction lifestyle—were legitimate business transactions. Black will remain as Apollo’s chairman.
- Twitter is getting into the newsletter game by acquiring Revue, a Dutch platform; Sara Fischers reports, for Axios, that the deal “marks Twitter’s first step into building out long-form content experiences on Twitter, and its first foray into subscription revenue.” In other newsletter news, the Everything Bundle—a collection of Substack newsletters that teamed up to offer readers a joint subscription—is leaving Substack to become an independent company called Every. Kia Kokalitcheva has more, also for Axios.
- Yesterday saw the official launch of Pipe Wrench, a new online magazine offering “a new issue every other month, made of a longform story surrounded by a constellation of interpretations and reactions and asides in conversation with it.” The first issue will appear in April. Pipe Wrench was founded by former staffers at Longreads, including Michelle Weber, Pipe Wrench’s editor in chief, and Catherine Cusick, its publisher.
- The Fort Lee Traveller—an eighty-year-old military newspaper that is printed by Gannett and produced by the public affairs office of the Army garrison at Fort Lee, Virginia—will put out its final edition tomorrow. According to Bill Atkinson, of the Petersburg Progress-Index, the Traveller is shuttering, in part, due to a COVID-linked decline in ad sales. The garrison will continue to be served by an online portal called Fort Lee News.
- On Monday, Handelsblatt, a German newspaper, reported that officials in that country believe that the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine may only be eight-percent effective among seniors—a claim that set off a firestorm in Britain, which has been racing to give its older residents the shot. AstraZeneca, however, dismissed the story, and yesterday, Germany’s health ministry suggested that the eight-percent figure may have stemmed from a basic misreading of the vaccine’s trial data. (Handelsblatt is standing by its story.)
- And Will Wilkinson—who recently lost his job at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank, after tweeting a joke about “lynching” Mike Pence—pushed back on media reports that called Wilkinson a victim of “cancel culture.” The term, he writes, is meaningless, serving only “to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position.”
Last August, Alexei Navalny—the Russian opposition leader and scourge of Vladimir Putin—was poisoned, and fell into a coma. Authorities initially refused to let Navalny leave the country for treatment—in order to hide evidence, his supporters surmised—but friends eventually managed to get him to Germany, where he stayed for months to convalesce. Recently, he made an announcement: he was coming home. A little more than a week ago, he boarded a flight for Moscow with a bevy of eager journalists and a few bemused onlookers. The plane was scheduled to land at Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of Navalny’s supporters and yet more journalists had gathered. But at the last minute, Russian officials rerouted the flight to the nearby Sheremetyevo airport, blaming weather conditions for the switch. (“Obviously,” Anton Troianovski, Moscow correspondent for the Times, said, “no one believes that.”) Upon landing, Navalny was able to briefly address the press and the millions of people watching him online, until police officers showed up and arrested him. Officially, his stay in Germany had violated the terms of a six-year-old parole agreement.
Before Navalny was incarcerated, he was able to record a video message urging opponents of Putin’s rule to take to the streets in protest. On Saturday, they did just that—turning out in huge numbers, across Russia, for what would prove to be the country’s biggest day of demonstrations in at least four years. In Moscow, some protesters threw snow at police—a daring act, videos of which blanketed social media and topped news bulletins around the world. “If there was one incident that suggested the significance of Saturday’s protests, it was probably the footage of the riot police in Moscow looking lost and disoriented as a crowd blitzed them with snowballs,” Alexey Kovalev, an editor at Meduza, an independent newsroom based in neighboring Latvia, wrote in an op-ed for the Times. “These protests, summoned by an imprisoned opposition leader and undertaken against the government’s warnings, are a significant development. After years of relative calm, Russia is restive once more.” Nationwide, police arrested nearly four thousand people.
Journalists were among those detained. Officials had warned reporters, outlets, and social-media platforms, including TikTok, not to participate in or advertise the protests; according to the Committee Protect Journalists, a freelance journalist named Anastasia Lotaryova was summoned to a police precinct in Moscow and given what officers called a “prophylactic talk.” Voice of America put the number of reporters seized by police at several dozen; among them was Roman Anin, the editor of a prominent investigative outlet called iStories. (He was subsequently released.) The radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that at least four journalists in Moscow sustained injuries in the course of their reporting.
Russia has long had a restrictive climate for press freedom. As I wrote last summer, that climate bears directly on Navalny—in the sense that the speech rights of dissidents and journalists cannot be separated, but also because Navalny is himself a journalist. Sort of. Since his arrival on the national political scene, Navalny has used reporting to expose corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the Russian state and rally opposition to Putin, first as a blogger, then via the Anti-Corruption Foundation—an organization, founded by Navalny, that publishes slick, highly-detailed video investigations of the affairs of senior figures, including, in 2017, Dmitry Medvedev, who was then the prime minister. As Anin told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project last year, Navalny “doesn’t follow journalistic standards” of balance, but has nonetheless created “probably the most effective investigative media outlet in the country.”
Navalny’s journalism helped build momentum for Saturday’s protests weeks before they began. Around Christmas, he cooperated with Bellingcat, The Insider, Der Spiegel, and CNN to release a bombshell report showing that he was being trailed by a team of operatives working for Russia’s secret police. Posing as a senior security official, he spoke by phone with one of the operatives, a chemical-weapons expert named Konstantin Kudryavtsev, and induced him to inadvertently confess the details of Navalny’s poisoning, and say plainly that it had been a failed assassination attempt. (Bellingcat observed the call, which Navalny recorded and published online, and confirmed details of Kudryavtsev’s account by cross-referencing them with “objective data.”) Then, last week, Navalny’s YouTube channel posted a highly-produced, two-hour-long documentary—complete with 3D graphics—leveling a series of extraordinary allegations about an opulent Black Sea palace that Putin had supposedly financed via a “slush fund.” The video has since been viewed nearly a hundred million times, an astronomical figure even by Navalny’s viral standards. Yesterday, Putin took the unusual step of personally responding to the film when asked about it by a college student; he denied that he or his family own the palace (a claim that Navalny did not technically make) and accused Navalny of attempting to “brainwash our citizens.”
Navalny will spend at least thirty days in jail, and his sentence is likely to be extended at a court hearing in early February. But Russian authorities do not only have him to worry about—as Bloomberg and others have reported recently, a new generation of “guerilla media” outlets including iStories and Proekt, an independent site founded by Roman Badanin, have been reporting aggressively on previously “taboo” topics, including Putin’s private life. The growing ambition of these newsrooms reflects a broader truth—that Putin’s grip on Russia’s information sphere is weakening. Kovalev, of Meduza, has observed that ten times as many people watched footage of Saturday’s protests on TV Rain, an independent channel, as on RT, which Putin controls. The student who’d asked Putin about the palace story had a comment, too: that people of his generation don’t watch TV, and instead get their news online. Polling data backs that up. Changing news consumption habits pose a long-term problem for Putin. In the short term, the protests are set to continue.
Below, more on Russia:
- President Navalny?: In recent days, various Russia-watchers have noted that Navalny is a complicated figure: his politics aren’t uniformly liberal, and he has a history of bigoted and nationalistic views. Masha Gessen, of The New Yorker, writes that in years’ past, much of Russia’s intelligentsia has been wary of Navalny, but that his post-poisoning return to Russia “has shown that the alternative to Putin is courage, integrity, and love.” Gessen predicts that either Navalny or his wife will “almost certainly” be Russia’s next leader.
- A deportation: On Thursday, Russian police ordered Vladlen Los, a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who is a citizen of neighboring Belarus, to leave Russia within four days; a day later, Los was arrested and jailed for disobeying the order. On Sunday, police put a bag over Los’s head and drove him to the Belarusian border. He is now free in Belarus, but he has been banned from returning to Russia for five years. Meduza has more details.
- Repeated arrests: Last week, police in the Russian city of Khabarovsk arrested Dmitry Timoshenko—a journalist for a regional newspaper who was covering a wave of local protests that preceded Saturday’s demonstrations—for the third time in quick succession. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, officers physically assaulted Timoshenko, who has also been ordered to pay a fine.
- Foreign agents: Earlier this month, Russia’s media regulator issued notices alleging that four media outlets affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an editorially-independent broadcaster funded by the US government, have violated Russian law by failing to label themselves as agents of a foreign regime. The outlets are now likely to face fines totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last week, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers called on President Biden to respond with new sanctions if Russian officials demand pay.
Other notable stories:
- Last night, the House of Representatives formally transferred its article of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate. Two weeks from now, Trump will stand trial for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Slate’s Aymann Ismail asked six journalists to reflect on what it was like to cover the Trump era, and on any regrets that they have. “I don’t see the last four years as this journalistic anomaly that will never be replicated again,” Astead W. Herndon, a political reporter at the Times, replied. “I think that it is one piece of what is a larger conflict in America.”
- Politico’s Christopher Cadelago and Natasha Korecki report on the efforts of right-wing outlets—including Sinclair, Newsmax, and Breitbart—to gain access to the White House briefing room, and how the Biden administration plans to handle their requests. “White House officials stressed that they won’t take steps to banish pro-Trump voices from the White House,” Cadelago and Korecki write—though T.J. Ducklo, a deputy White House press secretary, stressed that “organizations or individuals who traffic in conspiracy theories, propaganda and lies to spread disinformation will not be tolerated.”
- Last year, David Pecker retired as chairman and CEO of American Media Inc. when a medical-products manufacturer acquired the company and rebranded it as A360 Media. But according to the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Pecker is still “calling the shots” at A360 titles, including the National Enquirer. A source told Grove that Pecker is “behind the curtain pulling the strings just like the Wizard of Oz.” (Dan Dolan, the editor of the Enquirer, denies this.) For more on the Enquirer, read Simon van Zuylen-Wood in CJR.
- Also for CJR, Maggie Jones Patterson, a journalism professor at Duquesne University, shares her research on differences in crime coverage, including the practice of naming suspects, in the US and Europe. “In the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, citizens and journalists alike largely trust their governments, the police, and the criminal justice process,” Patterson writes. “There is a greater emphasis on avoiding trials-by-media.”
- Yesterday, McClatchy fired Christina Lords, the editor of the Idaho Statesman. Lords had recently tweeted her frustration at being unable to provide a new employee with access to Microsoft Excel, and appealed to readers to support the paper; the Statesman’s union believes that Lords was fired over the tweet, but said that executives have “refused to answer basic questions” about the decision. Margaret Carmel has more for BoiseDev.
- S. Mitra Kalita, a former CNN executive, and Sara Lomax-Reese, the CEO of WURD Radio, in Philadelphia, are launching “URL Media,” a newsletter that will bring local reporting on communities of color to a national audience. According to Axios’s Russell Contreras, URL—which stands for “Uplift, Respect, and Love”—already has partnerships with outlets including the Haitian Times, in New York, and Scalawag, in North Carolina.
- Ben Strauss, of the Post, profiles Bomani Jones, of ESPN. Last summer, after police killed George Floyd, Jones’s commentary on race was in demand, and his bosses called to thank him for his work. But sports now dominate once again, and Jones is uncertain about the future. The summer didn’t “usher in some new revolution” at ESPN, Jones told Strauss, “as much as it’s going to prove to be a moment in time.”
- On Sunday, BuzzFeed’s Rachel Zarrell, a past Forbes “30 under 30” honoree, revealed that Forbes invited seventy-five of her peers to travel to Bermuda in March, for a month-long “residency.” Forbes pledged to implement “state-of-the-art” COVID protocols to make the trip possible, but after Zarrell and others criticized the plan on public-health grounds, the company pulled the plug. The Guardian’s Archie Bland has more.
- And Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s second White House press secretary, is now running to be governor of Arkansas. In her (long-expected) campaign announcement, she bragged that she “took on the media, the radical left, and their cancel culture,” and won. (She also lied a lot.) Sanders was most recently a paid contributor on Fox News, but the network has now severed their relationship.
On Thursday afternoon, twenty-eight hours after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, Michael D. Shear, a reporter at the New York Times, asked Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, a question that was more of a comment. “There’s this call for unity that the president made in his speech yesterday, but there has so far been almost no fig leaf to the Republican Party,” he said, presumably meaning “olive branch”; Biden, Shear went on, has thus far not appointed a Republican to his cabinet, prioritized executive orders “largely designed at erasing” Trump’s legacy, and put forward an immigration bill that “doesn’t do much of a nod towards border security” and a relief bill that Republicans also dislike. “Where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship?” Shear asked, finally. “And when are we going to see one of those sort of substantial outreaches that says, ‘This is something that the Republicans want to do, too?’”
This wasn’t a new or unexpected focus: unity was a key theme of Biden’s campaign and has swirled down through media coverage as a result, driving much network chatter on the day the election was called for Biden, then again on inauguration day and ever since. On Thursday, Shear’s colleague Peter Baker published a news analysis that both-sidesed the concept of sides under the headline “In Biden’s Washington, Democrats and Republicans Are Not United on ‘Unity.’” Biden “may discover he can get a big coronavirus stimulus bill or a bipartisan deal—but not both,” Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim, and Jeff Stein wrote in the Washington Post on Saturday. “The path Biden chooses with his first major piece of legislation could set the tone for the remainder of his term, revealing whether he can make good on his promise to unify Congress and the country.” Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, said yesterday that Biden’s call “to dial down the temperature of political disagreements may quickly face its limits when it comes to policy consensus,” and noted the Republican argument that Donald Trump’s impending impeachment is a threat to unity; “If Joe Biden wants to unite the country,” Dana Bash quipped on CNN’s State of the Union, “maybe he should borrow Bernie Sanders’s mittens.” (Later, Bash acknowledged that the mittens, which went massively viral online last week, were a “distraction” from economic pain in the country, then presented Sanders with a few of her favorite mitten memes anyway, including images that placed Sanders in scenes from Ghost and Dirty Dancing. “She put you in the corner, senator.”)
In recent days, media critics have argued that much of this coverage is misguided, pointing out, correctly, that unification cannot be a unilateral act, and that seeking to hold Biden alone to the unity standard risks obscuring his opponents’ responsibility to reciprocate. Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Post, wrote last week that Republican politicians—and their boosters in right-wing media—are running a “‘unity’ scam,” attempting to “game the media into saying Biden is already reneging on his unity promise by being divisive” in an effort to move the national debate past their complicity in Trump’s abuses of power. “We are not required to play this game,” Sargent wrote. “Biden may or may not succeed in securing ‘unity.’ But Republicans don’t get to unilaterally dictate in advance what counts as a true attempt to achieve it.” Sargent suggested, in a separate column, that rather than channel the synthetic outrage of GOP elites, reporters should assess the tangible impact of Biden’s policies in places where Trump won.
When it comes to this narrative, media susceptibility to partisan grifting is only the tip of the iceberg; much of the recent coverage has betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding—both of what Biden seems to mean by unity and how the press might usefully approach the concept—that stems from the conflation of unity with the concepts of bipartisanship and ideological consensus. In his inaugural address, Biden didn’t once mention either of the latter terms; instead, as Sargent notes, he framed his call for unity around the rejection of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. To be sure, Biden is seeking bipartisan cooperation on his agenda—but that doesn’t amount to a policy goal in and of itself, and administration spokespeople have strongly implied, in recent media interviews, that if Republicans won’t come to the table, Biden will press ahead without them. As Baker reported in his news analysis, Biden’s allies see unity as “a change in culture, not splitting the difference on policy plans.”
Irrespective of what Biden means by unity, it’s not the media’s job to police political consensus; holding political candidates to their campaign pledges is not an absolute moral good, as the Trump presidency should amply have demonstrated. There are facets of unity that should concern the press, insofar as the rejection of rampant lies, bigotry, and insurrectionary violence can be seen through that lens—but a shared commitment to the basic truth is not the same as a shared worldview, and we should be careful not to blur the two. (As I’ve written before, nostalgic calls to return to the pre-internet age and its common set of facts often gloss over the reality that the gatekeepers of that era, mostly white men, shut out many valuable perspectives.) To be useful, the unified understanding that facts and democracy matter should be conducive to sharp, genuinely broad debate on the substance of policy, rather than constraining it. Too often, though, journalists—from White House correspondents to cable TV bookers—have instead defined unity as a window of acceptable opinion; as the historian Rick Perlstein told me last year, many in the media “fetishize” consensus, or the idea “that Americans are united and fundamentally at peace with themselves,” and that reporters should elide “structural tensions” in American society. This impulse entails the old idea that the truth is to be found somewhere between the major parties’ positions. One party, in particular, understands that by moving shamelessly to the right, it can pull the political media’s center of gravity in the same direction.
Over the weekend, various journalists, commentators, and Democratic interviewees did offer more nuanced conceptions of what unity might mean, but others continue to hew to the yardsticks that Shear planted in the White House briefing room. According to Politico, conservatives were thrilled by Shear’s question; the office of Kevin McCarthy—the House minority leader who voted to challenge the results of the election even after the insurrection on January 6—went as far as to send reporters a clip of Shear “calling out” (in their words) Biden. Political journalists, of course, can’t control how partisan hacks quote their reporting. But they are responsible for the way they frame questions of accountability. When it comes to Biden and unity, we need more sophisticated metrics than cabinet berths and legislative capitulations.
Below, more on the Biden news cycle:
- A different approach: Late last week, Politico’s Jack Shafer and the Post’s Margaret Sullivan both argued that reporters should tone down the thinly-veiled adulation that marked much coverage of the inauguration. “CNN glowed almost as brightly about the event as a state media would have,” Shafer wrote. “MSNBC worked from the same script, going gaga for not just Lady Gaga but the whole schmear.” Sullivan added that the press “runs the risk of being seduced by an administration that, in many cases, closely reflects our values: multiculturalism, a belief in the principles of liberal democracy, and a kind of wonky idealism.”
- A different lens: The media critic Dan Froomkin argues that with Trump gone, White House reporters should zoom out, focusing less on the person of the president and more on his administration as a whole. “The White House is more than just the president’s whims and mood disorders. It is filled with staff, and process, and sometimes competing senses of mission,” Froomkin wrote on his blog, Press Watch. “It’s hugely important for our major news organizations to break themselves of the habit of obsessively focusing on what the president says—and instead devote themselves to exploring much more broadly what is going on inside the White House, and how, and why.”
- The return of the briefing: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with S.V. Dáte, a White House correspondent for HuffPost, about covering the Trump era, and the return of regular, reality-based press briefings under Psaki; Dáte called the normalcy of the first briefing “very bizarre” compared to what came before. Elsewhere, the New Republic’s Alex Shephard cast a skeptical eye over the continued relevance of the briefings. Psaki’s approach is an improvement “but we needn’t honor it with extended bouts of applause,” he writes. “The longer you’re starved of the bare minimum, the more it looks like the extra mile when it returns, perhaps.”
- In brief: Azi Paybarah, of the Times, profiles WABC-AM, a right-leaning New York radio station whose air Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, is still using to push conspiracy theories about the election; management recently barred hosts from spreading such lies, but Giuliani claims, literally, that he didn’t get the memo. Elsewhere, Harris Faulkner, an anchor on Fox News, slammed Time magazine over a “not real!” cover image, showing Biden in a trashed Oval Office, that was clearly metaphorical. And Psaki seemingly mistook Peter Doocy, Fox’s White House correspondent, for his dad, Steve, also of Fox. (Last year, Mark Oppenheimer profiled Doocy—Steve, not Peter—for CJR.)
Other notable stories:
- On Saturday, Larry King, who hosted an eponymous CNN interview show for twenty-five years, died. He was eighty-seven. “In an era filled with star newsmen, King was a giant—among the most prominent questioners on television and a host to presidents, movie stars and world class athletes,” CNN’s Tom Kludt, Brad Parks, and Ray Sanchez write in an obituary. “With an affable, easygoing demeanor that distinguished him from more intense TV interviewers, King perfected a casual approach to the Q&A format, always leaning forward and listening intently to his guests, rarely interrupting. ‘I’ve never learned anything,’ King was fond of saying, ‘while I was talking.’”
- Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are speaking out about their experiences working on the pandemic under Trump. In an interview with Donald G. McNeil, Jr., of the Times, Fauci said that Trump advisers resorted to “nefarious” tactics to undermine his credibility while also controlling his media appearances; speaking with Margaret Brennan, of CBS, Birx said that officials would plant negative stories about her anytime there was an internal disagreement. Birx also pushed back on the criticism that she was an “apologist” for Trump. (Maggie Haberman, of the Times, notes that Birx did often appear to be “in lockstep” with Trump, and would brush off reporters who asked for her side of the story.)
- Last week, the journalist Yashar Ali reported that the Times canceled the contract of Lauren Wolfe, who worked as an editor for the paper, after she tweeted that watching Biden’s inauguration gave her “chills.” Online, critics accused the Times of bowing to pressure from right-wing trolls; yesterday, the Times responded that Wolfe did not have a formal contract with the paper, and denied ending her employment “over a single tweet”—while also maintaining that “we don’t get into the details of personnel matters.”
- Eric Boehm, of Reason, noticed that the Post recently updated a 2019 piece about Vice-President (and then presidential candidate) Kamala Harris by removing comments that she made comparing the rigors of the campaign trail to life in prison. The Post said that it “repurposed” some of its past reporting on Biden and Harris for a new series pegged to the inauguration, but acknowledged that it ought to have left the text of the original Harris piece online. The new version of the story now links back to the old one.
- Meg James, of the LA Times, investigated a deal that CBS struck nine years ago to acquire WLNY, a TV station on Long Island—a purchase that came with an exclusive golf-club membership thrown in. Peter Dunn, the executive in whose name the golf membership is registered, pledged to expand the station’s news output, but most of its journalists have since been let go. (CBS defended the deal as a “strategic acquisition” and noted that reporters at WCBS, in New York City, cover Long Island on WLNY.)
- The Boston Globe will invite subjects of the paper’s past criminal-justice coverage to apply to have stories about them updated or anonymized—a journalistic “right to be forgotten” that, the paper says, is part of an effort to reckon with the disproportionate impact that crime coverage exerts on communities of color. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has launched a similar initiative, and the Philadelphia Inquirer is working on a policy, too.
- Mike Smith, a carrier for the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon, raised the alarm after noticing that Kenneth Plank, an elderly subscriber, hadn’t picked up recent issues. Plank was stuck in his bathtub; he’s now recovering. “Be thankful for your newspaper man,” Plank’s daughter told the Herald and News, “because he might be the only one who knows something’s wrong.” (In 2018, I wrote for CJR on carriers’ unheralded work.)
- According to The Guardian’s Archie Bland, Rolling Stone is inviting “thought leaders” to pay two-thousand dollars for the chance to write for the magazine’s website; approved contributors will be members of an invitation-only “Culture Council” made up of “industry professionals.” Penske Media, which owns Rolling Stone, noted that all paid articles are labelled as such and do not run as editorial content.
- And Dan Rather is starting a newsletter on Substack—it will be called “Steady,” and Rather will aim to use it “to build and cultivate” a community of readers, away from the “divisiveness and pique” of Facebook and Twitter. (Back in 2018, Pope spoke with Rather about Trump, Nixon, and network news for CJR’s Monday interview series.)
Early yesterday, then-President Donald Trump vacated the White House and headed to Joint Base Andrews, where he gave a farewell address before flying to Florida. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer wondered aloud if we’d be treated to a final Trump surprise, but the event was predictable, as was the coverage it generated. “The Trump era ends as it begins,” James Poniewozik, TV critic at the New York Times, wrote, “with news networks wall-to-wall showing the empty stage where he’s going to speak.” Every major network carried the whole address live; reporters got in some final digs about the smallness of the crowd; one columnist even hailed the president’s new tone, though there didn’t seem to be much heart in any of it. After he finished speaking, Trump left the stage and boarded Air Force One as “YMCA” blared from the speakers. “Y’know, the first line of that song is, young man, there’s no need to feel down,” Rob Finnerty, a host on the pro-Trump network Newsmax, said on air. “Even though he will not be the president at noon Eastern today, there is no need to feel down.” And then he was gone.
Cut to Joe Biden—first at church, and then at the Capitol. Network talking heads chattered over music (the Marine band, not the Village People) and footage of various dignitaries taking their seats. Trump lingered, despite his absence—on CNN, John King accused him of neglecting the “norms and traditions” that “truly make America great”—while Mike Pence showed up and won some lukewarm plaudits for doing so. Various anchors hailed the “peaceful transfer of power.” With midday approaching, proceedings began and the punditry gave way to bromidic speeches by senators Amy Klobuchar and Roy Blunt, the latter of whom was, as recently as last month, still refusing to call Biden the president-elect; then, Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice-president, and Biden as president. Major outlets whipped out the banner headlines and unleashed a flood of news alerts on readers’ phones. Online, every journalist felt compelled to note either that Trump was no longer president, or, as it still wasn’t yet midday, that they weren’t yet sure who was technically president. Their tweets jostled for attention with Bernie Sanders memes, and then with a flurry of (deserved) praise for Amanda Gorman, a poet whose recitation instantly went viral; news organizations quickly turned all of this content into more content, further flooding the zone. In his inaugural address, Biden repeatedly stressed the importance of truth. The sun came out, and was quickly pressed into service as a metaphor.
New from CJR: What is Laurene Powell Jobs trying to achieve?
Less so in the right-wing mediasphere, though there was some generosity of spirit on display. On Fox News, Chris Wallace urged “us in the media” to take to heart Biden’s words on the truth, and called the speech as a whole “the best inaugural address I ever heard”; his colleague Brit Hume called Biden “an amiable, genial man,” and said, “Let’s give him a chance.” Over at FoxNews.com, editors gave Biden a chance with headlines including “Hunter Biden in attendance amid reported suspicious transactions probe,” and “CNN anchors let insults, condemnations fly as Trump leaves the White House”; later, back on the air, Sean Hannity said that Biden was “cognitively struggling,” and Laura Ingraham flashed up chyrons such as “MEDIA & CHINA GIDDY OVER PRESIDENT BIDEN” and “BIDEN’S DIVISIVE POLICIES SACRIFICE OUR FREEDOM.” One America News Network didn’t broadcast the inauguration at all, instead airing a documentary-length program titled Trump: Legacy of a Patriot. On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh insisted that Biden and Harris have “not legitimately won” the election.
Even in the reality-based media, it felt as if some of us were struggling to compute that Trump was really gone and Biden was really in. Given the events of two weeks ago, the networks were primed to cover more noisy strife after Biden was sworn in; instead, we got low-key formalities and a rare stretch of silence, as Biden traveled from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath. There was a collective feeling, almost, of Trump withdrawal; as Charlie Warzel, a columnist at the Times, put it, “it is very clear to me right now the extent to which my brain has become extremely conditioned to reading continuous and preposterous news about one man.” Media critics no longer had to write takes about all the unchecked lies in the president’s speech. By the 5pm hour, CNN was rattling breathlessly about the fact that Biden was now in the Oval Office. Reporters were excited to discover that Trump had left Biden a note; one shouted a question about it, but Biden declined to share what Trump wrote, beyond calling it “very generous.” At 7pm, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, convened a televised briefing, and pledged to do so daily going forward. (Though “not Saturdays and Sundays. I’m not a monster.”) The second reporter to be called asked about Trump’s note. Afterward, everyone agreed that Psaki’s professional demeanor was disarmingly normal. Van Jones said that the briefing was “mesmerizing”: “There was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense, and somebody asked a question, and that person answered.”
Throughout the day and into the evening—either side of a celebratory, ninety-minute special that every major network bar Fox carried live—the themes of normality and unity kept recurring in coverage. NBC’s Chuck Todd called the former “an elixir of sorts”; a CNN correspondent barked “Mr. President, can you unite the country?” as Biden unexpectedly walked past. These focuses were derived from Biden’s own messaging, but neither is entirely in Biden’s gift, and neither is a moral good in and of itself—the pre-Trump status quo, and much media coverage thereof, failed millions of people. It’s now accurate, at least, to say that there’s a “new tone” emanating from the White House, but actions still matter more. At some point, probably soon, pundits will stop seeing Biden’s boringness as refreshing, and start seeing it as boring. Before we get there, let’s drop our obsession with optics, and refocus the extra room that just opened up in our attention spans on the huge challenges that America still faces.
Below, more on the inauguration:
- Changing of the guard, I: CJR’s Ian Karbal rounds up some significant moves within the White House press corps, including Kaitlan Collins’s promotion to chief White House correspondent at CNN, Ashley Parker’s promotion to White House bureau chief at the Post, and Maggie Haberman’s plans. One correspondent who is staying put is Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS. “It would be great to be able to take a vacation and go out,” she told Karbal, “but we’re living in the middle of a pandemic.”
- Changing of the guard, II: Michael Pack—the Trump-appointed chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees state-backed, yet editorially-independent, broadcasters including Voice of America—resigned yesterday at Biden’s request, leaving a trail of firings, whistleblower complaints, conservative appointments, and other controversies in his wake. Pack—who investigated reporters for their perceived anti-Trump bias, and who moved to obliterate the firewall between management and journalists so that the agency might better “support the foreign policy of the United States”—called his ouster “a partisan act” on Biden’s part. Biden tapped Kelu Chao, a VOA news executive, as Pack’s interim replacement. NPR’s David Folkenflik has more.
- 1619 v. 1776: Biden also acted yesterday to dissolve the 1776 Commission, a panel of conservative educators that Trump convened to wage culture war on history-teaching generally and the Times’s 1619 Project—which sought to center slavery in the American story, including via resources for schools—in particular. Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton, warned that despite Biden’s decision, the commission’s legacy will live on; its final report, he wrote, “has the stamp of approval of the White House and will directly or indirectly influence the teaching of American history in large parts of the nation.”
- No trouble: As I noted in yesterday’s newsletter, major newsrooms provided their reporters with protective gear and special training ahead of the inauguration, given the heightened threat of domestic terrorism, but in the end, no violence came to pass. Andrew McCormick, who covered the inauguration for The Nation, wrote that the streets outside the security perimeter were so quiet that “journalists outnumbered civilians in comic proportion. I listened to one woman, who had traveled from Boise, Idaho, for the inauguration, give interviews to reporters from at least Japan, France, and Romania. (‘Joe Biden is going to unify our country,’ she told them all.)”
- Snookered Q: Online, many devotees of the QAnon conspiracy theory—which held that Trump would stage a successful inauguration-day coup and stay in power—were upset and confused when it didn’t happen. “Anyone else feeling beyond let down?” one poster asked. “It’s like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal.” Even Ron Watkins, a major figure in the community, gave up the ghost, advising his followers to “go back to our lives as best we are able.” NBC’s Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny have more.
- Justice with Judge Jeanine: When Trump’s published his final list of pardons and commutations early yesterday morning, Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host and reliable Trump sycophant, was upset that the president hadn’t included her ex-husband, Albert Pirro, who was convicted of conspiracy and tax evasion in 2000. Per CNN’s Pamela Brown and Caroline Kelly, Jeanine quickly lobbied for Albert to be added, and in the final hours of his presidency, Trump complied—a final spin of the Trump-Fox feedback loop.
- Going bust: Biden put some personal photos behind his Oval Office desk, next to a bust of the labor leader Cesar Chavez (and not of Eleanor Roosevelt, as the Washington Post erroneously labeled it). Biden reportedly also removed a bust of Winston Churchill. Britain’s right-wing press is taking the news about as well as you’d expect.
Other notable stories:
- For Business Insider, Steven Perlberg explores what’s next for the Washington Post as Trump departs the White House and Marty Baron prepares to stand down as the paper’s editor. Current and former Post staffers told Perlberg that the paper is in a good financial position—but they have concerns about its ability to move past the Trump story, and say that the newsroom has yet to fully resolve internal tensions over race and diversity. According to Perlberg, some staffers “watched with envy” as Times journalists took a public stand against their opinion editor, James Bennet, last year, leading him to resign.
- In December, an attorney for Dominion Voting Systems, an election-tech company that was repeatedly smeared by Trump-allied conspiracists, wrote to leaders of One America News, which spread the smears, threatening legal action; in response, OAN doubled down, demanding that Dominion retain documents linked to Venezuela and George Soros. According to Business Insider’s Jacob Shamsian, however, OAN’s website has since quietly deleted articles about Dominion and Trump’s election lies generally, without disclosing any retractions. (ICYMI last year, Andrew McCormick profiled OAN.)
- Stephanie Edgerly, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism, surveyed over a thousand US media workers in an effort to gauge industry views on election coverage. While strong majorities of respondents thought coverage of the Biden and Trump campaigns was fair, nearly two-thirds of respondents thought that the press was over-reliant on opinion polls. A similar proportion agreed that polls can themselves drive voting behavior, and a majority agreed (in a poll) that polls are “unreliable.”
- Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley investment firm, is launching an online opinion page that will publish “unapologetically pro-tech, pro-future, pro-change” content. The move comes “amid growing tension between prominent venture capitalists and the news media,” The Information’s Zoë Bernard reports. Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, has “privately expressed antipathy” toward the media, and “has been known to block members of the tech press from viewing his tweets.”
- In press-freedom news, military authorities in Somalia arrested Kilwe Adan Farah, who runs a news outlet via Facebook, and accused him of murder; if convicted, he could face a death sentence. A local press group believes that the allegations are fabricated. Elsewhere, Egypt arrested two freelance reporters, Hamdi al-Zaeem and Ahmed Khalifa, on terrorism charges. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more on both stories.
- In France, the cartoonist Xavier Gorce said he would stop working for Le Monde after the paper publicly apologized for running a cartoon that he drew satirizing incest, which is currently the subject of a national reckoning following allegations against a political commentator. Critics said the cartoon was offensive and transphobic; Gorce said it was misunderstood, and that his editorial freedom “cannot be negotiated.” AFP has more.
- And The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood is under fire for calling Trump “the political equivalent of the Insane Clown Posse,” a reference to a rap duo with fans known as Juggalos. Taylor Lorenz, of the Times, wrote that Juggalos are “notably a very kind, inclusive community.” Violent J, one half of Insane Clown Posse, told HuffPost that Wood’s article “fuckin’ hurts,” and that “sad little bullshit like this makes me question the media.”
ICYMI: A tale of two inaugurations
This post has been updated to correct the misspelling of Amanda Gorman’s name.
Four years and a day ago, I boarded a bus with what felt like half of my journalism school class and traveled to Washington, DC, for the inauguration of Donald Trump and the Women’s March the day after. I’d arranged to cover the events for Pacifica radio and ended up writing a short dispatch for my hometown paper back in the UK—my first “real” bylines. I woke up early for the inauguration, anticipating a long wait to get onto the Mall, but the line was relatively short and there was plenty of space inside to rove around and interview Trump supporters. (So much for the biggest inaugural crowd ever.) I spoke to the Naked Cowboy, and to young families and kids on school trips; I steered clear of a group chanting “Lock Her Up,” but never felt threatened myself. “I think it’s kind of ridiculous not to go to the inauguration,” a student wearing a Hillary Clinton lapel pin told me, when I asked him why he was there. “It’s a testament to American democracy to have one president leave peacefully and another come in.” The sentiment—and the number of friendly, first-time political participants I spoke with, at the inauguration as well as the Women’s March—stuck with me. Despite my initial “sense of foreboding,” I wrote in my dispatch, the proceedings “may, just, have buttressed the foundations of a shaking democracy.”
Today, Joe Biden will be sworn in as president, and there will be no crowd on the Mall—the consequence of a deadly viral pandemic that his predecessor refused to try to tame, and an attempted coup that his predecessor encouraged. Reporters will not be strolling around town unencumbered, recording vox pops. Due to the violence—both general and targeted at members of the press, specifically—during the insurrection and the threat of the same today, various newsrooms have provided their reporters with gas masks, helmets, and body armor; they’ll report in teams for added safety, and some will travel with assigned security guards. Yesterday, Capitol Police told reporters that they would not be allowed to enter the secure area surrounding the Capitol while wearing their protective gear; in response, news organizations wrote to the Secret Service urging a rethink, or at least further clarity. As the New York Times reports, several outlets have assigned journalists with combat experience to cover the inauguration. (The Nation is sending Andrew McCormick, a military veteran and recent CJR fellow.) Press groups have issued advisories warning reporters of potential threats, including aggressive policing, arson, and the potential for a vehicle attack on an assembled crowd.
New from CJR: The daily grotesque
The contrast between the threats of today and the calm of inaugurations past has been held up, by some, as a neat metaphor for the damage the Trump era has wrought, both on the press and the country as a whole. Such yardsticks can indeed be useful points of comparison. Still, while they may mark the messy rush of history, they don’t always structure it—and Trump’s presidency clearly cannot be seen as a straight line from harmony to discord. This week, I listened back to my reporting from Trump’s inauguration, and it hit me with a contradictory mix of emotions and questions. I felt proud that I’d produced coherent audio with no professional experience, but also cringed at framing that channeled various tropes I’ve since come to hate: the invocation of “America’s divisions” as an actor in their own right; the whiff of bothsidesism; the general optimistic tone, which now comes across as complacent. To what extent was the latter attributable to my youthful naïveté, or my white privilege, or my Britishness? To what extent was it inherited from the canons of conventional political journalism that I aspired back then to emulate?
Most difficult of all to answer: to what extent was I actually wrong? There’s no question I had blindspots back then, and still do, but I don’t remember feeling complacent about the dangers Trump posed at the time. (Then again, I find that it’s hard to recall exactly how I felt without the weight of everything that has happened since crowding my memories.) The excitement I heard from children attending the Women’s March was exhilarating; the Trump supporters I asked for interviews were generally friendly and happy to talk to me; the peaceful transition was a relief. It’s tempting to now view all this as a lie: in 2017, Trump and his most militant supporters were assuming institutional power without the need for violence; wasn’t it inevitable that they would deploy it when their grip on power was threatened? Perhaps. But history does not proceed on the principle of inevitability, and the last four years have been marked by a series of inflection points at which Trump and his many enablers could have chosen differently and steered America off its present path. Inevitability can obscure accountability.
At the same time, we know that the fundamental nature of Trump the man hasn’t changed. There’s a broader lesson for the press in this. To the extent reporters have erred in covering this presidency, it hasn’t exactly been in any failure to predict the specific tumult of its climax; prognostication is not our job. Rather, the failure came in insufficient honesty about all the threats to democracy that were already apparent; in the relentless optimism, among many influential journalists, that meaningless fluctuations in Trump’s public behavior constituted a “pivot,” a “change of tone,” or newly “presidential” conduct; in the insistence that old-school journalistic practices—crafted by older white men and policed primarily by political good faith—would be enough to hold a reliably faithless president and his co-partisans to account. As my CJR colleague Pete Vernon and I wrote in a recent, detailed critique of Trump coverage, the basic rhythms of our industry have “conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines.” The challenge, as I wrote last week, is to let the shock of this moment shake loose our old bad habits.
Thinking back to Trump’s inauguration, it struck me, too, how strange it is that this period would prove to be the launchpad for my journalism career; for all that my perspective has changed and broadened these past four years, I do not know what it is like to write professionally about a president who isn’t Trump. Clearly, I’m not alone in that. As time goes on, will those of us who cut our teeth in this era stay linked by a common journalistic sensibility? If so, will we prove a force for change in an industry that needs it? Or will its legacy—its trauma, even—be messier than that? (It’s not healthy to have to cover any event from behind a bulletproof vest.) As with all the questions swirling in my head this week, the answer may be all the above.
Below, more on the inauguration:
- Pardons: As expected, Trump used his last night as president to announce a raft of pardons and commutations; among the one-hundred-and-forty-three beneficiaries were his former campaign chief and media booster Steve Bannon; the GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy; and Ken Kurson, a former editor of the New York Observer who was charged with cyberstalking last year. According to the Times, however, Trump backed off a plan to pardon Sheldon Silver, the former New York State Assembly speaker, after word of his intention leaked out in the press—triggering a furious reaction among New York Republicans and a critical editorial in the New York Post.
- Outgoing: Yesterday, a federal appeals court overturned a last-minute Trump administration move to relax regulations on emissions from power plants; the court called the policy, which was widely construed as an attempt to hamstring Biden’s climate plans, a “tortured series of misreadings” of existing laws. Elsewhere, Politico’s Tina Nguyen reports that chunks of a late Trump-era report spinning US history for educational purposes appear to be a copy-paste job. And on the journalism front, Michael Pack—the Trump-appointed CEO of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and other state-backed broadcasters—named new boards for several of the outlets and stuffed them with conservatives, including a contributor to the Epoch Times. (Before Christmas, I looked at the damage Pack has done at VOA.)
- Incoming: Five of Biden’s cabinet nominees faced Senate hearings yesterday; one of them, Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, pledged to declassify intelligence records—which Trump declined to release—that reportedly blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In media news, the Biden administration will immediately institute new safety and testing protocols for reporters covering the White House. Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, will hold her first official briefing at 7pm Eastern.
- Trump news, drawn daily: For the past four-and-a-half years, Warren Craghead, a Virginia-based artist, has drawn daily grotesque images of Trump and his administration officials—a project that required daily engagement with the chaotic Trump news cycle. He spoke with Brendan Fitzgerald, CJR’s senior editor, about the effort, which ends today. “Some people think that staring at this stuff and drawing it is corrosive,” he said. “But it’s not—it’s empowering. It’s no substitute for actual, material activism or advocacy. But it is something; I’m doing something.”
- FOIA emoji: According to Sara Fischer, of Axios, and the nonprofit FOIA Project, more Freedom of Information Act lawsuits were filed under Trump’s presidency than during any equivalent period; news organizations filed more cases than under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama combined. “BuzzFeed News has by far led media companies in FOIA filings during the Trump administration,” Fischer writes, “followed by the New York Times.”
- Full circle: I ended my broadcast from the Trump inauguration and Women’s March by reflecting on the inaugural briefing of Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary; his deranged lies about the size of the crowd; and what it all portended for Trump’s relationship with the press. Yesterday, Politico reported that Spicer, who now hosts a show on the right-wing network Newsmax, is trying to return to the briefing room as a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association. His application is pending.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, Caitlin L. Chandler has the story of a German HIV doctor who was accused of a decades-long pattern of abuse, then appealed to the country’s courts to have reporting on the allegations scrubbed from the internet. “In criminal trials, German law presumes innocence unless a guilty verdict is handed down by a judge,” Chandler writes. “This is similar to the US legal system; however, in Germany, the presumption of innocence is also applied to press coverage. While the media is allowed to report on criminal trials… the law protects suspects from media coverage deemed to stigmatize them unfairly before a verdict is reached. For example, the media is rarely allowed to publish photos of someone in custody, unlike the ‘perp walks’ commonly publicized in the US.”
- On Monday, Bill Sammon, senior vice president and DC managing editor at Fox News, told colleagues of his impending retirement; then, yesterday, the network laid off nearly twenty staffers, including Chris Stirewalt, its political editor. Sammon and Stirewalt were both involved with Fox’s decision desk, which enraged Trump and his supporters when it called Arizona for Biden on election night; the call proved correct, but according to the Post’s Sarah Ellison, Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, disliked the way it was handled. The Daily Beast’s Diana Falzone and Lachlan Cartwright report, meanwhile, that the layoffs reflect an “ideological purge” aimed at pivoting Fox’s website “from straight-news reporting to right-wing opinion content.” (A Fox spokesperson said that the network is realigning “its business and reporting structure to meet the demands of this new era.”)
- In recent months, Facebook has claimed that it stopped steering its users to join political groups—but Leon Yin and Alfred Ng, of The Markup, found that not to be the case. According to data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project, which pays to access the feeds of a representative panel of users in order to better understand Facebook’s algorithms, the platform continued to recommend such groups, especially to Trump fans.
- Fischer, of Axios, reports that Forbes is launching a newsletter platform; it will initially host writers with big existing followings, who will split revenue with Forbes in exchange for editorial and salary benefits. The platform will have “more editorial oversight over the selection of newsletters and authors” than Substack, “where content moderation policies are intentionally less strict because writers are paid directly and only by readers.”
- For CJR, Vernon spoke with Jake Sherman, a former author of Politico’s Playbook newsletter who recently helped launch a new outlet, Punchbowl News, focused on congressional reporting. “I’m not looking for this to be a place where you’re going to get a hate read about how somebody is a horrible person or an evil genius,” Sherman said. “We are writing about power, the exercise of power, and people abusing power.”
- The New York Mets fired Jared Porter, the team’s general manager, after ESPN obtained unsolicited, explicit messages that he sent to a female reporter in 2016, when he worked for the Chicago Cubs. ESPN first planned to run the story in 2017, but held off after the female reporter expressed fears for her career prospects; she has since left the industry and agreed to share her story anonymously. Mina Kimes and Jeff Passan have more.
- On Monday, FBI agents arrested Kaveh Afrasiabi—a political scientist who taught at schools including Boston University and worked as a pundit focused on Iran—and charged him with serving as an unregistered foreign agent of the Iranian government, including via his media appearances. Afrasiabi was born in Iran, but became a permanent US resident in the nineteen-eighties. Benjamin Kail has more for MassLive.
- In her newsletter, Culture Study, Anne Helen Peterson takes issue with a recent Times article that, in her view, amplified alarmist tropes about video games and children’s rising screen time. Peterson spoke with Rachel Kowert, a psychologist who said the article channeled a form of moral panic. Gaming, Kowert said, “can have wide ranging, positive impact on mental well-being,” but when it comes to media coverage, “fear sells.”
- And for CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, asked Lesley M. M. Blume, the author of a recent book on the famed New Yorker correspondent John Hersey, what lessons reporters covering the pandemic might draw from Hersey’s work in Hiroshima after it was atom-bombed by the US in 1945. Hersey, Blume said, has “given today’s reporters certain devices to help illustrate the humanity behind the catastrophe.”
ICYMI: The Doctor vs. #MeToo
Update: The reference to Axios‘s story on the Freedom of Information Act has been updated to clarify that the records in question concern FOIA lawsuits.
Ten years ago last Thursday, the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia and his regime fell. He had been under intense public pressure for several weeks, ever since a fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his treatment by police, sparking mass protests. The fall of Ben Ali was a seminal moment in the wave of regional uprisings that quickly came to be known as the Arab Spring, with demonstrators from North Africa to the Gulf demanding economic dignity, democracy, and greater freedoms, including of speech and the press. The protests were documented on social media, including by citizen journalists who relayed compelling scenes of repression and revolution across the world.
Tunisia has since embarked on a transition to democracy, and journalists have been among the beneficiaries. In 2010, the country ranked one-hundred-and-sixty-fourth (out of one-hundred-and-seventy-eight countries) on Reporters Without Borders’s press-freedom index; last year, it ranked seventy-second. (For context, the US ranked forty-fifth.) “Freedom of expression is one of the gains of the revolution in 2010, whether in the media or on social networks, or simply in cafes as a fear that once reigned has truly dissipated,” Layli Foroudi, a freelance journalist who has written for CJR on the push to reform Tunisia’s state news agency, told me last week. In her two years reporting out of Tunis, the country’s capital, Foroudi says that the authorities have approved her press accreditation without any problems—a far cry from the Ben Ali era, when Abdelwahab Abdallah, an official known locally as “Tunisia’s Goebbels,” sought to control journalists’ speech—and independent outlets such as Inkyfada, a news site that worked on the Panama Papers and other transnational investigations, have flourished. Many challenges remain, however. Over the years, the government has continued to harass reporters, and the climate has worsened since the election, in 2019, of President Kais Saied; last year, two bloggers, Anis Mabrouki and Hajer Awadi, were prosecuted for criticizing Tunisia’s response to the pandemic. (Mabrouki was acquitted; Awadi was convicted then freed on appeal.) “Old habits among long-time staffers die hard and corrupt practices remain,” Foroudi says. In recent days, protests have flared again, and the authorities have responded with mass arrests.
Beyond Tunisia, the picture—both for democracy and for the media—is significantly bleaker. In the months following the Arab Spring, countries whose old regimes fell failed to codify advances in media freedom, and regimes that survived cracked down on dissenting voices with fresh vigor; by 2015, regional journalism associations had concluded that, on the whole, press freedom was even worse than it had been prior to the uprisings. “Media organs that had proved crucial to the uprisings degenerated with dismaying rapidity into highly partisan platforms serving state authorities or political factions,” Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, wrote that year in the Journal of Democracy, and “both mass media and social media magnified the fear and uncertainty that inevitably accompany transitions.” In the years since, journalists working in many Middle Eastern countries have been variously arrested, jailed, and expelled, or harassed with bogus lawsuits, spyware, and coordinated pro-regime troll swarms on social media. In all, the story of the last decade has been one of an “unprecedented toll paid mostly by local journalists who, in wave after wave, have faced retaliation—many of them because of their role in covering the protests,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me recently. By the end of 2020, “one of every three journalists behind bars worldwide was in the Middle East.”
That is true thanks, in no small part, to Egypt, where the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013, has become one of the world’s most prolific jailers of journalists, as well as strangling online news sites and formalizing highly restrictive speech laws. “As leaders around the world take aim at ‘fake news,’” Ruth Margalit wrote for CJR in 2019, “Egypt’s efforts may be the most brutal, and the most foreboding.” Since 2010, the country has dropped nearly forty places on RSF’s index and is now among the fifteen worst countries for press freedom globally. Bahrain—where the ruling dynasty survived mass protests and has since clamped down hard on reporters and citizen journalists, including by stripping some of them of their citizenship—dropped twenty-five places since 2010 and sits even lower than Egypt. Libya, Syria, and Yemen—which all saw significant uprisings in 2011, and where local journalists have since been torn between competing factions amid years of brutal conflict—all remain near the bottom of RSF’s list; in Syria alone, hundreds of journalists, including the celebrated war reporter Marie Colvin, have been killed since 2011. The press-freedom climate has also stagnated or deteriorated in countries including Iraq, Jordan, Oman, and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia, of course, brazenly assassinated the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“We have seen many prosecutions since 2015 targeting people for things they said on Twitter at the heat of the moment during the Arab Spring years. At the time, tweets felt ephemeral and most people never thought they would one day down the road come to haunt them,” a journalist in the Gulf region, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, told me. “Looking back now, it is hard not to feel that the window of freedom at the start of the Arab Spring was fleeting and deceivingly full of hope. What we are left with today is an atmosphere of fear where most people—including journalists—have to make a difficult choice between silence or exile.”
Still, the decade marker is too soon to close the book on the Arab Spring, and the various regional pushes for democracy that have followed it. Journalists and activists in the region are quick to point out that young people in many countries are now less scared to confront power than their parents were. In Algeria, for instance, a street movement known as the Hirak sprung up in 2019 and forced the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s long-term president. The new administration has close ties to the old one and continued to suppress speech, including by jailing journalists and blocking news sites. But protests continued, too, well into 2020.
“Whichever way we look—to any country in the region and at any level—things look terrifying. But that’s not the full picture,” Alia Ibrahim, cofounder and CEO of Daraj, a Lebanon-based Arabic news site, told me this morning. “You can’t expect societies to change in months and years, and a closer look shows a lot has been achieved in the last decade.” She added, “The dreamers that took the streets ten years ago are maturing into reformers, in all fields—the media included. We should have no illusions. Today, we have no reason to celebrate any big successes, but we do have not only the right but the obligation to be hopeful that what we have started will eventually win. This is how history works and there is no turning back.”
Below, more on press freedom around the world:
- Egypt: Earlier this month, a video that appeared to show that an Egyptian hospital had run out of oxygen—leading to the deaths of at least four coronavirus patients—went viral on social media. Egypt’s government denied that there was any oxygen failure, but an investigation conducted by Mona El-Naggar and Yousur Al-Hlou, of the New York Times, proved otherwise. Egypt has repeatedly punished journalists for reporting on the pandemic: last year, officials arrested Atef Hassaballah El-Sayed, the editor in chief of the newspaper Al-Qarar Al-Dawly, and expelled Ruth Michaelson, of The Guardian, for questioning the official case count. CJR has more on both incidents.
- Ethiopia: CJR’s Feven Merid spoke with Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of the Addis Standard, in Ethiopia, amid escalating conflict and an attendant crackdown on press freedom in the country. “So little has changed,” Lemma says. “The independent media continues to struggle to assert our own editorial independence and get equal access to information. We have to rely on how the government media packages the narrative. We just take it from them, and we have so little room to scrutinize, to investigate.”
- Uganda: Last week, officials in Uganda shut down the internet ahead of an election that returned President Yoweri Museveni, the thirty-five-year incumbent, to power; on Friday, his regime placed his opponent Bobi Wine, who alleges that the election was rigged, under house arrest. Yesterday, the government restored internet access, although, according to Netblocks, extensive restrictions still apply to messaging services.
- Russia: On Sunday, Alexei Navalny—the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned in August, and has since been convalescing in Germany—returned to Moscow and was immediately arrested. Yesterday, a court remanded Navalny in custody for thirty days; in a YouTube message, he called on his supporters to “take to the streets” in protest. In August, I explained for CJR how Navalny’s case is linked to freedom of the press.
Other notable stories:
- We continue to learn more about the insurrection: on Sunday, the New Yorker released astonishing footage that its reporter Luke Mogelson captured inside the Capitol (“I think Cruz would want us to do this”), and ProPublica pulled together hundreds of videos that the insurrectionists themselves uploaded to Parler, before that app went offline. Attention has started to turn to security issues around the inauguration, which is tomorrow; the AP reports that the FBI is vetting National Guard members assigned to the event amid fears of an inside attack. In the meantime, we have Trump’s last full day in office to contend with: we can expect pardons, a taped farewell address, and more nonsense like this.
- Last night, Fox News debuted its new 7pm Eastern opinion show, with Brian Kilmeade as guest host; per the LA Times, Maria Bartiromo will also try out hosting the show, as will the Fox commentators Katie Pavlich, Rachel Campos-Duffy, Mark Steyn, and Trey Gowdy. According to the Washington Post, some network staffers have concerns about the line-up; one called Bartiromo’s inclusion “ludicrous and disheartening” since “she is among the most responsible for propagating the big election lie.” In other Fox News news, the Daily Beast reported last week that Suzanne Scott, the network’s CEO, and Jay Wallace, its president, may be on the way out. A Fox spokesperson rejected the premise of the story as “wishful thinking by our competitors.”
- Yesterday, more than three-hundred public-radio employees and six institutions, including New York Public Radio and Nashville Public Radio, signed on to an open letter, coordinated by Celeste Headlee, calling for an anti-racist future for public media. “We hope to tear down public radio in order to build it back up,” the letter says. “We don’t critique our industry because we hate it, but because we love it and hope it can live up to a higher standard of inclusivity that serves our diverse communities.”
- In other public-radio news, Nicholas Quah reports for Vulture that stations in Houston, Austin, Marfa, and LA will no longer syndicate The Daily, the flagship Times podcast, due to concerns over its handling of the recent controversy around another Times show, Caliphate, including the Daily host Michael Barbaro’s failure to disclose his ties to Caliphate producers. Barbaro has also been criticized for his hostile response to critics of Caliphate on social media; over the weekend, he apologized and pledged to do better.
- In France, the sports newspaper L’Equipe has not been published for the last eleven days after staffers decided to call a strike in protest of a plan to cut jobs at the paper and its sister titles, which focus on cycling and soccer. Last week, one-hundred-and-eighty current and former athletes—including the basketball player Rudy Gobert and tennis star Yannick Noah—signed a letter in support of L’Equipe’s journalists. RFI has more.
- HBO recently picked up The Investigation, a drama series based on the case of Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist who was murdered by a source in Denmark in 2017. Tobias Lindholm, the director, writes for The Guardian that he decided not to name Wall’s killer in the series, since he was already the subject of a “media circus” in Denmark; instead, Lindholm says that he chose to center Wall, her family, and “the humanity of it all.”
- And Alex Janin, of the Wall Street Journal, discovered a field notebook that belonged to her grandfather, Arlie Schardt, who covered the civil-rights movement in Selma for Time magazine in 1965, and who died last year on the same day that police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. In his notebook, Schardt jotted down “a question that still resonates today,” Janin writes: “How much force is necessary to stop people who don’t fight back?”
This week, as the headlines of major media outlets fixated on the threat to American democracy, the coronavirus pandemic continued to rage. Every day, the United States reported more than two-hundred-thousand confirmed new cases of COVID-19; according to data from Johns Hopkins University, Tuesday set a new daily record for COVID deaths, with more than four-thousand reported. Public health experts have criticized the slow pace of the vaccine rollout; on Tuesday, the Trump administration told states to loosen their vaccine eligibility criteria and pledged to release all its available doses immediately, rather than hold back second doses for people who already had their first. The economic toll is intensifying, too: yesterday, the Labor Department reported the biggest weekly rise in filings for unemployment benefits since the early days of the pandemic. These dire data points are a reminder: the urgency of pandemic coverage does not rise and fall to reflect the gravity of the situation. As Politico’s Renuka Rayasam put it this week, “You can’t impeach the virus.”
It wasn’t just the pandemic—there was other major news this week, too: We learned that 2020 effectively tied (with 2016) as the hottest year the planet has ever recorded. The Supreme Court ruled that women seeking to use mifepristone, a pregnancy-termination drug, must collect it in person, and not by mail—the court’s first abortion decision since adding Amy Coney Barrett, who has a history of anti-abortion views. Prosecutors in Michigan charged Rick Snyder, the state’s former governor, with willful neglect of duty in relation to the contamination of drinking water in Flint. (He has pleaded not guilty; eight other defendants, including other ex-officials, have also been charged.) The case, Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor, said, is aimed at “finally holding people accountable for their alleged unspeakable atrocities that occurred in Flint all these years ago.”
New from CJR: Our year of pandemic words
Much of the week’s non-insurrection news involved Trump administration policies, including some that officials are trying to ram through before leaving office next week. Whistleblowers alleged that Trump appointees overseeing the Census Bureau were pressuring staff to hurriedly count undocumented immigrants in order to exclude them from Congressional apportionment (though on Wednesday, the bureau seemed to abandon the effort). The State Department designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, reversing an Obama-era decision, then moved to designate Houthi rebels, an Iran-backed faction in Yemen’s war, as a terrorist group. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the regulation of emissions from stationary infrastructure including oil wells and gas refineries—a move that was variously interpreted as a preemptive brake on Biden’s climate agenda and as “a parting gift to polluters”—and diluted safety advice around PFBS, a toxic chemical that is widely present in drinking water. On Wednesday, the federal government executed Lisa Montgomery—the first female prisoner to meet that fate since 1953, and the eleventh prisoner of any gender to be executed since Trump re-authorized federal capital punishment. The twelfth, Corey Johnson, was executed last night; the thirteenth, Dustin Higgs, will be executed today. And yesterday, the Justice Department’s inspector general published a report on the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border. Afterward, Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who oversaw the policy, said that it “should have never been proposed or implemented.”
None of this is to say that the intense focus on the insurrection, Trump’s impeachment, and the ongoing threats of fascism and white supremacy isn’t justified; nor is it to say that the stories listed above haven’t been covered—they were, and diligently so, by reporters at a range of outlets. CNN, to pick one example, made an effort to spotlight the pandemic on air: Sara Sidner, a correspondent, reported from an overwhelmed hospital in California, the tenth she’d visited recently to speak with doctors and relatives of COVID patients. A woman described holding her mother’s funeral in a parking lot. Sidner broke down in tears. “To see the way that these families have to live after this, and the heartache that goes so far and so wide,” she said. “It’s really hard to take.”
Still, the coup attempt by Trump supporters has undeniably swallowed reporters’ time and news consumers’ attention. Trump has not had favorable coverage this week—and its tone will, in all likelihood, remain in historical tellings of the Trump presidency, with the infamy of the Capitol siege and two impeachments at the fore. In a way, though, he still won: by creating a horrific display of his disgrace, he’s avoided adequate, focused scrutiny on past offenses—from his climate denialism to child separations—that deserve prominent placement in news reports and assessments of his legacy as he prepares to leave office. Media critics often lament that election campaign coverage relegates substantive talk about policy. It turns out that election overthrow coverage does, too.
The turbulence of the White House transition could serve as an opportunity for the news media, if only we choose to seize it. Experiencing the shock of how fragile American democracy is should jolt journalists out of our past, often complacent way of doing things; political reporters ought to recenter civic conversation around the long-term wellbeing of the republic and its citizens. Last night, Biden gave a detailed speech outlining his vaccine strategy and stimulus plans; networks carried it in full and, this morning, Biden’s pledges top many major homepages. It was a hopeful foreshadowing of a news cycle less drenched in the shallow daily outrages of the Trump era. Cutting away from the speech, CNN’s Erin Burnett seemed almost dumbfounded by its normality: it was “the kind of speech that we have, you know—we can—it’s a presidential speech,” she said. Of course, Trump’s impeachment trial is yet to come, and it will coincide with Biden’s first days in office. Our balancing act isn’t done yet.
Below, more from a news-filled week:
- East Coast bias: Yesterday, Sidner appeared on Reliable Sources, CNN’s media podcast, to discuss her coverage of California hospitals. She told Brian Stelter, the host, that she felt “exposed and embarrassed” when she broke down on air, since journalists are taught not to show emotion, but added that if her emotional reaction “did something to help, then I’ll embarrass myself every single day, all day long.” Sidner also argued that national coverage of COVID reflects an East coast media bias, because the level of reporting on California’s spike doesn’t match what had come out of New York, when cases peaked there.
- CJR coverage of Trump’s harmful legacy: In the summer of 2018, with child separations dominating the news cycle, Roberto Lovato assessed the coverage for CJR, and found that it often excluded Central American voices; a few months later, CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Kim Kyung-Hoon, a Reuters photographer who captured a shocking image of border officials teargassing young children. In August 2019, I outlined the many steps the Trump administration has taken to suppress government climate science. And in November 2019, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, discussed coverage of executions with Robert Dunham, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center, on our podcast, The Kicker.
- Notes on an insurrection: Yesterday, a coalition of media advocacy groups, including the News Media Alliance and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, wrote to federal law enforcement agencies demanding greater transparency, including regular briefings, around the investigation into the insurrection. Sara Fischer, of Axios, has more. Fischer also reports that, according to NewsGuard, ad placement software put spots from hundreds of advertisers next to election disinformation, without the advertisers’ knowledge. And CNN has an early candidate for correction of the year, on a story detailing a Democratic lawmaker’s reaction to the Capitol siege: “A previous version of this story misstated that Rep. Ted Lieu grabbed a crowbar before leaving his office. He grabbed a ProBar energy bar.”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Politico’s Playbook newsletter—which has recently tapped a series of guest writers as it makes new arrangements on staff—handed the reins to Ben Shapiro, a right-wing podcaster. Shapiro used his Playbook turn to spread nonsense about the impeachment vote. Media critics were scathing of Politico’s decision to include him and, according to the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani, many (though by no means all) Politico employees were angry, too; one pointed to Shapiro’s “long history of bigoted and incendiary commentary.” On a call with staff, Matt Kaminski, Politico’s editor in chief, defended the choice: “Mischief making,” he said, “has always been a part of Politico’s secret sauce.”
- Ed Butowsky and Matt Couch—both of whom spread conspiracy theories about the murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic Party staffer, in 2016—have retracted their claims and apologized to Rich’s family as part of an agreement to settle a lawsuit brought by Rich’s brother. Butowsky was heavily involved in a Fox News story, later retracted, on Rich’s death; last year, the network reached a separate settlement with Rich’s family. (For more details, Yahoo’s podcast Conspiracyland is worth a listen.)
- Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who worked on the Edward Snowden story in 2013, says that First Look Media, the company she co-founded, recently fired her. Poitras alleges that she was terminated for publicly criticizing First Look’s treatment of Reality Winner, a whistleblower who was arrested for leaking documents to The Intercept, which First Look owns; First Look says it decided not to renew Poitras’s contract since she was no longer actively working for the company. (She denies this.) The Post’s Sarah Ellison has more.
- Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith profiles Popular Information, a Substack newsletter written by Judd Legum that investigates corporate power. Last week, Legum contacted every corporate contributor to Republican senators who challenged the election result, and major companies responded by halting their donations. Legum told Smith that he finds stories by focusing on topics that are “so monotonous and boring that it’s unlikely to be duplicated” by a mainstream outlet. (For more on Substack, read Clio Chang in CJR.)
- Wikipedia was born twenty years ago today, and Stephen Harrison and Omer Benjakob write for CJR that coverage of the site could still be better. Reporters should show that “Wikipedia operates within a larger information ecosystem and relies on the availability of trustworthy media coverage,” they argue. “We need journalism that reveals how the act of collecting knowledge—and even the concept of knowledge itself—is complex.”
- Last week, Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik, of the Times, reported that mobile telecom providers in Hong Kong cut off access to HKChronicles, a pro-democracy website that contained personal information about police officers. The block sparked fears that Hong Kong officials had, for the first time, censored a site under the terms of a draconian security law introduced last year; yesterday, a local broadband company confirmed this.
- Recently, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, notified users that they will have to let the company access more of their data in order to keep WhatsApp on their phones. The update sparked outrage in India, which is the app’s biggest market. On Wednesday, Facebook placed full-page, A1 ads in major Indian newspapers in a bid to convince WhatsApp users that the company respects their privacy. Fast Company has more.
- And if you ever wanted to learn to write in the style of Axios, you’re in luck. For ten thousand dollars a year, businesses will soon be able to use AxiosHQ, a communications tool that, among other perks, will allow subscribers to solicit writing tips from a team of editors. A “perk”: one of them used to work on Trump’s presidential briefings. (The editors will work independently of the Axios news desk.) The Journal’s Benjamin Mullin has more.