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Media Elevate Eugenicists, Sideline Disabled Voices in Discussions of Covid Rationing

FAIR - January 20, 2021 - 3:57pm


In the sticky conversations around rationing life-saving treatments and vaccines during the Covid pandemic, corporate media have elevated some experts without disclosing their troubling views on disability, aging and the value of human life. Meanwhile, media outlets have largely sidelined the voices of disabled activists and others who could speak on behalf of those most affected by the pandemic.

‘Quality of life’

“The stark message to chronically sick, disabled people and elders is that we are ‘acceptable losses,'” Elliot Kukla wrote in the New York Times (3/19/20).

In the first weeks of the Covid outbreak, national media outlets did shine a spotlight on issues for disabled people, including the potential for discriminatory triage guidelines. Disabled voices appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times (3/19/20, 3/23/20), Washington Post (4/6/20, 4/9/20) and Vox (4/4/20), advocating for their rights.

Disability became a viral social media topic in July 2020, after a Texas woman shared a recording of a doctor refusing life-saving treatment for her Covid-infected husband, Michael Hickson, a Black father of five who was already a quadriplegic with brain damage. On tape, his doctor defended his choice based on Hickson’s lack of “quality of life,” by which he clarified to mean Hickson being “paralyzed with a brain injury,” not the infection. He also referred to Covid medication as being appropriate for patients who are “walking and talking.”

A few national outlets picked up the story, reflecting varying degrees of understanding of the disability issues at stake. Newsweek (7/2/20) leaned on statements by the hospital and care agency only, which defended the doctor’s medical choice but glided over his statements. Nor did Newsweek‘s article itself include all of the doctor’s incriminating words—or any input from disability advocates.

The Washington Post (7/5/20) described the contrast between Hickson’s wife, who wanted life-saving measures used, and his sister, who sought legal guardianship to let him die, as between a “voice of hope” and “a pragmatist,” respectively. The sister’s pragmatism was illustrated by her acceptance that Hickson was no longer “a genius,” or “the person he was before 2017,” when he was injured—with the Post not questioning the assumption that that prior brain damage was relevant to whether he should be saved.

None of the national stories pointed out how the doctor’s statements by themselves violated federal anti-discrimination rules for Covid triage, as a physician pointed out in an op-ed in The Hill (7/15/20). Still, the Hickson case brought brief attention to disability issues, with follow-up stories from outlets like USA Today (7/14/20) and Politico (8/10/20) covering state and local battles for disability rights.


Peter Singer (New York Times Magazine, 4/10/20) rejects comparisons of the Covid death toll to Vietnam War casualties, because “this is killing mostly older people. I think that’s really relevant.”

While national corporate media have sometimes, especially early on, centered disabled and affected voices during this pandemic, representatives of affected groups have not been included in conversations about rationing and other policy issues.  No advocates of disability or aging were invited to participate in either of two debates on Covid-19 ethical issues published in the New York Times Magazine and hosted by staff writer Emily Bazelon: “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?” (4/10/20), and “People Are Dying. Whom Do We Save First With the Vaccine?” (12/24/20).

Both conversations brought together five “thinkers,” as Bazelon described them. Each included author Peter Singer, described as “bioethics professor at Princeton [University].” Singer’s beliefs are guided by a “utilitarian” philosophy, which, he says, “does the most to increase the net surplus of happiness over misery” (NPR, 6/1/20). Singer has received significant positive attention in the last few years from national media outlets. An otherwise glowing article on Singer in Vox (12/11/20) did point to one notable mark on his record:

He has also been at times a controversial figure in modern ethics, alienating many in the disability community with what they’ve called his simplistic and horrifying takes on intellectual disabilities.

Indeed, Singer has argued, repeatedly and emphatically, that parents should be able to euthanize their disabled babies — not just abort fetuses, but kill actual infants. He describes nondisabled lives as “hav[ing] a greater chance at happiness” than disabled lives (New York Times, 2/16/03). Singer also believes that people with significant cognitive disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cease being “persons,” because they lack self-awareness, and so can ethically be euthanized by caregivers (New Yorker, 9/6/99).

Otherwise, Singer claims to value human and animal life highly (Vox, 10/27/20). He wrote a book called Animal Liberation and opposes eating, testing on or harming animals. (He has not offered an opinion on disabled animals.)

Disabled activists, religious scholars and others have spoken out ardently against Singer’s views for years, describing them as “eugenics” (e.g., Independent,, 10/10/11; National Review, 9/2/13;), which is defined as a coordinated effort to improve the genetic make-up of a population. The most famous eugenicists, the Nazis, sterilized and killed disabled people.

The beliefs that undergird Singer’s positions on disability correspond to some of his opinions on Covid. In the April debate in the New York Times Magazine, and in other writings around that time, Singer argues that the consequences of “lockdowns” are “horrific,” because “more younger people are going to die,” and that most of the people who died have been very old, with “underlying medical conditions.”

In the December New York Times Magazine debate, Singer argues that we should reconsider the plan to vaccinate older people in nursing homes first. “I think we should ask questions about the quality of their lives,” he says. “The objective that we should aim for is to reduce years of life lost.” He has said that he would give up lifesaving measures to someone “much younger” than himself, if that person didn’t have “underlying health conditions that mean that their life expectancy is no greater than mine” (NPR, 6/1/20).

Criticism of Singer was more prominent in mainstream media ten or more years ago, when British media outlets referred to him as “the man who would kill disabled babies” (Independent, 5/13/98) and “the most dangerous man in the world” (Guardian, 11/5/99).  Yet Singer’s reputation would not have been a mystery to Bazelon or the Times when they selected him for the two Covid-19 debates. He has published similar views in the Times recently.

In 2017, Singer argued in a Times op-ed (4/3/17) that rape charges were unfair against a woman who had sex with a noncommunicative man with cerebral palsy. Singer’s argument shifted: the man “may lack the concept of consent altogether,” he offered at one point; elsewhere he suggested, even if the woman “wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.”  The Times earlier (1/26/07) gave Singer space to question a disabled body’s autonomy, dismissing qualms about doctors deliberately stunting the growth of a disabled child as “lofty talk about human dignity.”

Singer’s collection of beliefs is peculiar to him and nonscientific, yet he was invited to the Covid debate table among experts on public health. His ideas of “happiness” and “quality of life” are not measurable, and there is no evidence that happiness correlates with physical or cognitive ability. Scientists also cannot predict the life expectancy of anyone with “underlying medical conditions.”

What is more, Singer has no experience working in medicine or public health; bioethics is a humanities discipline, created in the late 1960s. He acknowledges as much in a Washington Post op-ed (4/27/20) on Covid-19, in which he and his co-author suggest people could voluntarily get sick to provoke immunity. “We are ethicists, not medical or biological scientists,” they write. “When it comes to factual beliefs about the pandemic, we defer to expert scientific opinion, as everyone should.”

Diminishing capacities’

Singer was not the only controversial bioethicist to participate in Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine debates on Covid rationing. Her first conversation also included Ezekiel Emanuel. Unlike Singer, Emanuel does have a medical background, although not in epidemiology; he is an oncologist.

Even more than Singer, Emanuel has become one of the national media’s go-to experts on Covid, making frequent appearances on CNN (10/13/20), MSNBC (10/2/20), CNBC (10/13/20) and other news networks throughout the crisis, as well as writing numerous op-eds and being sought for comment. His media profile was further elevated after President-elect Joe Biden appointed him to his Covid-19 task force. Previously, Emanuel worked on the creation of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama.

A member of Joe Biden’s Covid advisory panel argued that “society and families—and you—will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly,” and kills him at age 75 (Atlantic, 10/14).

Like Singer, Emanuel has shared disturbing views on disability and aging in the past. Most famously, he published a piece in the Atlantic (10/14) titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  In the essay, Emanuel writes that aging “renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.” The article enumerates a long list of physical and cognitive losses, or “diminishing capacities,” associated with aging. Emanuel lists various conditions that are normally experienced by disabled people of all ages and determines they would make life no longer worth living.

A good deal of Emanuel’s article focuses on how people over 75 almost never achieve great things, which, for him, is associated with production and validation in a capitalist society. When asked about seniors over 75 who do lead active lives, he replied (Technology Review, 8/21/19): “When I look at what these people ‘do,’ almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking.”

Emanuel’s 2014 Atlantic essay ends with a promise to avoid any medical tests or interventions after 75, including the flu shot. He refers to pneumonia as “the friend of the aged” by gifting the elderly with death.

For this and other reasons, advocates for the disabled and elderly were especially concerned when Emanuel’s name was announced as part of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory team. These advocates and others spoke out on social media and in the independent press. Corporate media mostly ignored the controversy in its coverage of his appointment, with Fox News (11/9/20) and USA Today (11/25/20) as notable exceptions. But USA Today only mentioned the controversy to defend Emanuel, calling his Atlantic essay a “personal preference,” even though the essay used “we” and “us” language, making assumptions about shared views on aging and disability. The essay also included a long critique of the American impulse to fight aging.

Emanuel appears on talk shows regularly discussing Covid, but he has rarely if ever been asked about his views on disability and aging since 2014. Bazelon did bring it up during the Times Magazine debate. He told her the premise of his Atlantic article was a “personal preference, not a policy proposal,” the same language used by USA Today.

If Emanuel’s outlook on aging and disability is a “personal preference,” he has nonetheless pursued policies that seem to align with it. During Obama’s presidency, he proposed systematizing the rationing of scarce medical resources, like organs, based on a calculus of age and disability instead of first-come, first-serve. He also argued in opposition to the Hippocratic oath putting individual patients over cost and the greater good. These views were controversial, prompting some conservatives to suggest the ACA would instill “death panels’ (Forbes, 9/24/14).

Emanuel has been proposing a similar approach to who should receive Covid-19 treatment and vaccination. He proposes prioritizing individuals with greater social value and more estimated years remaining, which is calculated based on age and disability (New York Times, 3/12/20; NEJM, 5/21/20).

Several media outlets, especially the New York Times, have provided extraordinary and mostly uncritical space for Emanuel’s ideas on Covid, even though he is not an epidemiologist. He is also not the only member of Biden’s Covid advisory board. The Times has published 12 op-eds related to Covid written or co-written by Emanuel since the pandemic started (e.g.,  4/14/20, 7/29/20)—more than the total number of Times op-eds about how Covid has affected disabled people and seniors. Emanuel has also written several Covid-related opinion pieces for the Washington Post (e.g., 4/22/20, 7/31/20), as well as for USA Today (3/19/20, 10/10/20), Science (9/11/20) and the Atlantic (4/18/20, 5/22/20) (for which he previously wrote reviews of DC-area restaurants).

Corporate media’s elevation of Emanuel and Singer as experts on Covid-19, without scrutinizing their troubling views, points to how unprepared news outlets are to report on the nuances of disability in the age of Covid. On November 7, many disabled people on Twitter were pleasantly surprised after CNN’s Jake Tapper mentioned “#cripthevote” on live television, a popular hashtag for disabled political conversation.

“This is not a community that gets a lot of attention as a political force,” Tapper said. About 25% of the US population has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and this percentage is likely to have grown in the last year, with the rise in long-haul Covid illness.

Corporate Media’s Leaked Chinese Documents Confirm China Didn’t Hide Covid-19

FAIR - January 20, 2021 - 1:47pm


CNN (11/30/20) examined “China’s mishandling of the early stages of Covid-19,” despite the fact that China brought its pandemic under control within two months, whereas CNN is based in a country that at the time was seeing its own outbreak surge to unprecedented heights.

Several reports on China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic came out late last year, based on what US outlets like CNN, the New York Times and ProPublica claimed to be leaked Chinese documents. Although these reports implied that China was responsible for how bad the pandemic has been because of its downplaying of numbers and censoring of critical information, these narratives are themselves misleading in several ways.

CNN (11/30/20) released “The Wuhan Files” in late November, announcing “a string of revelations contained within 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” According to CNN:

Taken together, the documents amount to the most significant leak from inside China since the beginning of the pandemic and provide the first clear window into what local authorities knew internally and when.

However, though the documents provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings, they do reveal numerous inconsistencies in what authorities believed to be happening and what was revealed to the public.

This is not the first time Chinese information has been leaked. Earlier in 2020, Foreign Policy (5/12/20) reported on a leaked dataset of coronavirus cases and deaths from the Chinese military’s National University of Defense Technology, which indicated that the Chinese government’s internal information matched the Covid-19 numbers the government publicly posted online, corroborating multiple professional judgments that China’s reported numbers were reliable. Dr. Bruce Aylward—a Canadian medical expert with 30 years of experience combating polio, Ebola and other global health emergencies—concluded that he “didn’t see anything that suggested manipulation of numbers,” after leading a team of experts visiting China for the World Health Organization (New York Times, 3/4/20).

‘Numerous inconsistencies’

CNN (11/30/20) pointed out that China was reporting 2,345 Covid cases at a time when a broader definition put the case count at 5,918. To put this in perspective, this is 0.01% of the total cases that the US is now reporting, vs. 0.02% as many cases.

So, what are these “numerous inconsistencies”? Again, according to CNN:

The documents show a wide-range of data on two specific days, February 10 and March 7, that is often at odds with what officials said publicly at the time. This discrepancy was likely due to a combination of a highly dysfunctional reporting system and a recurrent instinct to suppress bad news, said analysts. These documents show the full extent of what officials knew, but chose not to spell out to the public.

Even though CNN claims that the Wuhan Files “provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings,” it’s still instructive to examine these inconsistencies on February 10 and March 7. On February 10, CNN notes that “Chinese authorities reported 2,478 new confirmed cases,” even though a confidential document in the Wuhan Files “list a total of 5,918 newly detected cases on February 10.” These were “never fully revealed at that time,” which CNN implies is due to “China’s accounting system” appearing to “downplay the severity of the outbreak.”

CNN is careful to note that the Chinese government wasn’t lying when it didn’t report all 5,918 newly detected cases, as it notes that the 5,918 figure is actually a total derived from a “variety of subcategories,” which include 2,345 “confirmed cases,” 1,772 “clinically diagnosed” cases and 1,796 “suspected cases.” and five who “tested positive.” (There were also five cases described as having “tested positive”; CNN does not specify how these differ from “confirmed cases,” which is how China described those who tested positive for a polymerase chain reaction [PCR] or genetic sequencing test.)

Apparently, the “inconsistencies” stem from Chinese officials taking a conservative approach in their daily reports of new coronavirus cases due to “strict and limiting criteria,” leading to “misleading figures” by omitting some subcategories:

That month, Hubei officials presented a daily number of “confirmed cases,” and then included later in their statements “suspected cases,” without specifying the number of seriously ill patients who had been diagnosed by doctors as being “clinically diagnosed.” Often in nationwide tolls, officials would give the daily new “confirmed” cases, and provide a running tally for the entire pandemic of “suspected cases,” also into which it seems the “clinically diagnosed” were added. This use of a broad “suspected case” tally effectively downplayed the severity of patients who doctors had seen and determined were infected, according to stringent criteria, experts said.

Certainly, without further context, it appears as if these announcements “downplayed” the number of China’s cases by treating as “suspected” what were really clinically confirmed cases, but merely being familiar with CNN’s own reporting about the outbreak is sufficient to dispel the notion. Just three days after these figures were presented, CNN (2/13/20) reported that health authorities in Hubei province (where Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 was first detected, is located) announced that “there had been nearly 15,000 new cases overnight—almost 10 times the number of cases announced the previous day.” What was the explanation behind this sudden and drastic increase in the number of reported cases? CNN explains that China had revised its methodology in reporting new cases to include “clinically diagnosed cases,” the very subcategory that had been omitted on February 10:

The government was quick to point out the outbreak didn’t suddenly get much worse; the authorities had simply changed the way they reported cases in order to allow more people to access treatment faster.

The total number of cases reported by China now includes “clinically diagnosed cases.” These are patients who demonstrate all the symptoms of Covid-19 but have either not been able to get a test or are believed to have falsely tested negative.

Coverup or clarifying?

Closer to home, revisions to pandemic statistics are treated as attempts to be more accurate, not as signs of a sinister coverup (Politico, 4/14/20).

Is revising how a country reports new Covid information an abnormal practice unique to China? Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove (Hindu, 4/18/20), a WHO epidemiologist commenting on China revising Wuhan’s Covid-19 death toll upwards by 1,290—adjusting its previously reported number of deaths from 2,579 to 3,869 on April 17—stated that China’s actions were “an attempt to leave no case undocumented.” She also stated that she anticipates that “many countries” are “going to be in a similar situation where they will have to go back and review records” to see if they caught all cases.

And indeed, in April, New York City (the primary source of infection around the US, after travelers from Europe infected them) revised its death toll by 3,778 in one day, bringing its previous total of 6,589 deaths to 10,367 (Politico, 4/14/20). Britain likewise added 2,142 fatalities on April 11, revising its death toll from 4,093 on April 4 to 6,235 (Wall Street Journal, 4/14/20).

Despite these revisions occurring within a week of each other, only China’s revisions were presented as a possible “coverup” (Guardian, 4/17/20). It is actually normal to revise the criteria for counting new cases and deaths during a pandemic, to incorporate new information and improved testing capacities in real time.

On February 21, when China again revised its methodology of counting cases to include more cases, not fewer, CNN (2/21/20) reported that Chinese officials cited improved testing capacity as the reason for doing so. Revising death tolls upwards and broadening case definitions to include more people are actions that contradict the Western media narrative of China trying to deceive the world with fake statistics that minimized the outbreak.

Chinese officials (Xinhua, 4/17/20) gave a detailed explanation behind its discrepancies when they revised the death toll upwards on April 17. They explained that overwhelmed medical facilities at the beginning of the outbreak caused them to miss cases; a rapid increase in designated hospitals for Covid-19 had left some medical institutions unconnected to the epidemic information network, which prevented them from reporting their data in time; and there were repetitions, mistakes and incomplete registration information among some deceased patients.

Keeping New York City and Britain’s revised death tolls in April as a frame of reference, CNN’s Wuhan Files reporting that China had only reported 2,986 deaths in Hubei province on March 7, while having a total of 3,456 deaths divided into subcategories of 2,675 confirmed deaths, 647 clinically diagnosed deaths and 126 suspected case deaths, does not seem like an egregious discrepancy.

The only examples offered of China underreporting deaths—as opposed to omitting subcategories—was on February 10, when China didn’t publicize the deaths of six healthcare workers, and on February 17, when it reported only 93 deaths in Hubei Province when the daily confirmed deaths was 196. But the size of those discrepancies is small enough to have been accounted for in future revisions, and the Wuhan Files account for these discrepancies primarily on local health officials being “reliant on flawed testing and reporting mechanisms,” not on official dishonesty.

Compared to what?

Disclaimers and qualifications aside, one cannot simply report numbers or approaches without putting them in a context that would be meaningful to the public. CNN’s Wuhan Files report omitted specific comparative figures like the ones cited above, even though it’s difficult to assess how competent China’s pandemic response was without any frame of reference. When Western media reports omit this necessary context, they imply that the appropriate benchmark to compare China’s response to is perfection, which it inevitably falls short of, allowing the creation of a narrative in which China’s pandemic response was especially (and suspiciously) incompetent and sluggish.

For example, the Wuhan Files mention a report from early March stating that the average time it took from the onset of symptoms to a confirmed diagnosis was 23.3 days, indicating that local officials were facing a “lumbering and unresponsive” IT network. Certainly, 23.3 days was a significant lag by early March, as the lag between onset symptoms and a positive test was four days in the US at the beginning of April (New York Times, 4/1/20).

But CNN citing professionals claiming that that delay would have made it hard to direct public measures is silly, considering that it had already cited the overwhelmingly successful results of the first 50 days of the pandemic (Science, 5/8/20). The Wuhan Files note that by March 7, “over 80% of the new confirmed cases diagnosed that day” were being recorded that same day, which was a significant improvement from earlier.

When compared to the US, where numerous reports (Washington Post, 3/30/20; New York Times, 3/10/20, 3/28/20; Wall Street Journal, 8/18/20) detail how the US’s failures to produce adequate testing kits and pursue aggressive testing until early March made it impossible to contain the outbreak—since it’s very difficult to stop a virus from infecting others without knowing where it is—the imperfections of China’s pandemic response seem grossly exaggerated. Notoriously, the Trump administration said that the US should slow down testing to avoid bad statistics, and even stripped the CDC of control over its own coronavirus data to a central database in Washington, which led the new Covid-19 hospital data system to be riddled with delays and inaccuracies as late as July (NPR, 7/31/20). Even when the daily growth in coronavirus cases appeared to be dropping at times, testing shortages threw the US coronavirus numbers into doubt (CNBC, 8/12/20).

When corporate media outlets report on the failures of US testing, they usually don’t go beyond comparing the US’s response with South Korea’s; if the US’s response were to be compared to China’s, the contrast would be even more embarrassing. China tests entire cities with millions of people, and implements swift lockdowns within days as soon as they detect even a single asymptomatic case. While it may be fair to criticize China for going against WHO guidelines by not including asymptomatic cases among its confirmed cases, this cannot be interpreted as a coverup, since China still records them in its own subcategory and quickly requires them to be under strict 14-day quarantine guidelines, with additional follow-up visits afterwards to make sure they are not spreading the virus (CGTN, 11/18/20).

An exceptional response

But if it’s unfair to compare China’s response with one of the world’s worst performers, the US, one can also compare China’s response to countries like Germany and South Korea—which are frequently praised by corporate media—along with India, the only country with a comparable population to China, to get a sense of how exceptional China’s response has been. Although international comparisons are difficult for a variety of reasons—including missing data from these countries early on—data on new cases per week and total deaths from Johns Hopkins University clearly shows that China outperforms all of them. Here is data on February 10 and March 7 from these countries, the dates the Wuhan Files emphasizes to make the argument that China was “downplaying” the pandemic, along with the current status of these countries.

Source: 91-DIVOC

Despite being the first country to deal with the novel coronavirus, China has the lowest new cases per day, and has fewer deaths than all of them except for South Korea. But when we recall that China’s population is approximately 27 times that of South Korea’s, it’s apparent that many more people are dying as a percentage of the population there than in China.

Source: 91-DIVOC


It’s difficult to present this data in a visual format, because the vast disparities between China and everyone else—especially the US—make such a rendering visually unhelpful:

Source: 91-DIVOC

But here is that same graph (which normalizes for population size) with the United States and Germany removed, to illustrate how even among countries that had relatively low rates of Covid infection, China was exceptional:

Source: 91-DIVOC

Although the Wuhan Files offers some vindication of China’s pandemic response by noting the difficulties it had being the first country to confront the virus, and how little knowledge of the virus China was operating with, it is hard for readers to grasp how well China has done without including other countries’ performance as a basis for comparison.

Even CNN’s defense of China’s initial pandemic response, noting that China “faced the same problems of accounting, testing and diagnosis that still haunt many Western democracies even now,” is misleading, because it suggests China’s initial response was as bad as Western democracies’ current responses. In reality, initial corporate media reporting noted that scientists had begun research with “unprecedented speed,” due to how quickly China sequenced and shared the SARS-CoV-2 genome (Washington Post, 1/24/20). The Lancet (3/7/20) criticized countries around the world for their “slow and insufficient” actions, and cited a WHO/China joint mission report describing China’s response as probably the most “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” making for a “striking contrast.” Dr. Bruce Aylward (Vox, 3/2/20) claims that the “key learning from China is speed—it’s all about the speed.”

‘Whistleblower doctors’

A New York Times/Pro Publica article (12/19/20), on how China promoted a “soothing message from the Communist Party: that it had the virus firmly under control,” neglected to point out that the Chinese Communist Party in fact had the virus firmly under control.

Perhaps this is why CNN’s Wuhan Files, and another report from the New York Times co-published with ProPublica (12/19/20), based on supposedly leaked Chinese documents, focus on the repeatedly debunked myth of Dr. Li Wenliang and other supposed “whistleblower doctors.”

The Times/ProPublica claim to have obtained more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos from China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, as well as internal files and computer code from Urun Big Data Services, a Chinese company. Unlike the Wuhan Files, it’s unclear how credible these documents are, since the Times and ProPublica don’t provide lengthy explanations for how they authenticated the documents. (They were provided by a hacker group called CCP Unmasked, which has provided unauthenticated documents before.) But assuming the Times/ProPublica documents are real, the report is still misleading in several ways when it describes how China’s censors “got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative” of Li’s passing:

They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”

While Li’s loss is a tragedy, he wasn’t a whistleblower, nor the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and he wasn’t even ahead of the Chinese government; international media were able to publish contemporaneous reports on the Covid-19 outbreak without relying on him as a source. On December 30, Dr. Ai Fen circled the word “SARS” on a report containing a false positive for the 2003 coronavirus and sent it to a former medical school classmate, which was shared until it reached Li. He shared the picture in a private WeChat group on December 30 as well, but he didn’t consider himself a whistleblower, and asked the group not to make it public before it was leaked on December 31. He and his colleagues were brought in for questioning by the police, and were reprimanded for spreading rumors on January 3 before being released. This might be why the Times/ProPublica avoid calling him a “whistleblower,” as many  Western media reports did previously.

Dr. Zhang Jixian, the first doctor to report the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

Dr. Zhang Jixian was the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and she wasn’t a whistleblower either, because she followed established protocol by reporting an unfamiliar respiratory illness to her hospital’s disease control department on December 27. This is why Dr. Zhang was never punished, but rewarded for her contribution. Her report led to an investigation and resulted in an announcement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 30, and a media statement on December 31. This is why various foreign news outlets (e.g., Reuters, 12/31/19; AP, 12/31/19) reported on this “pneumonia outbreak,” and how institutions like the WHO (12/31/19) and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (12/31/19) received this supposedly “secret” information in real time.

This is public knowledge, and is probably known by the Times and ProPublica, since they studiously avoid calling Li the “first” doctor to report Covid-19’s existence, and instead refer to him merely as “a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak.” The Times/ProPublica link to an early Times report last year (2/7/20) also only describes Li as “among the first to warn about the coronavirus outbreak in late December,” which suggests that they are aware that someone else had already reported Covid-19 to health authorities before Li’s information was leaked. Yet their report and a search on both their websites for Zhang’s name turns up nothing, suggesting that they are burying the real story of how Covid-19 was discovered and reported, which is ironic for a report decrying Chinese censorship.

In fact, a Nexis search for Zhang Jixian’s name from January 1, 2020, to December 19, 2020, from the Associated Press, New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and Fox News return no results. To be fair, Nexis doesn’t catch all reports, but even after searching on Google and outlets’ websites, it’s clear that the biggest news outlets in the country are themselves omitting critical information that contradicts their false narrative of a Chinese government coverup.

Although the Associated Press failed to report on Zhang’s story, it has two press releases on its website from CGTN (4/13/20, 4/13/20)—a Chinese state media outlet—that mention her role in informing the world of Covid-19. Fox News (3/13/20, 4/16/20) is the only outlet above that briefly reported Zhang’s role in two reports that present baseless speculation, relying on anonymous sources, about the evidence-free lab leak theory, and about the WHO collaborating with China to conceal Covid information. The latter piece misleadingly presents a retroactive tracing of the first Covid-19 patient in China’s Hubei province to November 17, 2019 as evidence of a Chinese coverup.

The Washington Post (whose data is no longer included by Nexis) has only mentioned Zhang twice, once in a factcheck (5/20/20) debunking President Trump’s misleading letter to the WHO (which cites Zhang), and the other in an article (2/24/20) that shares the same talking points as CNN’s Wuhan Files report. A search for Li’s name on the Post‘s website, meanwhile, returns 81 results.

Information against infection

One question ignored by the Times/ProPublica report, and countless other stories from Western media outlets condemning how local officials in Hubei province handled Li and his colleagues (for which the Chinese government has issued an apology and fired local government officials), is whether sharing Li’s mistaken information would have been helpful. If the Chinese population had been convinced that the initial reports of a mysterious pneumonia outbreak was a return of the 2003 SARS virus, instead of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19), that could have had disastrous results. One critical difference between SARS and SARS-CoV-2 is the latter having presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission (where cases could infect others before, or without developing any symptoms), whereas SARS did not (Lancet, 5/1/20). Would it have been helpful for people to think they should only quarantine or isolate themselves when they develop symptoms?

Likewise, another question the Times, ProPublica and other Western outlets ignore when they criticize China for censoring “anything that cast China’s response in too ‘negative’ a light” is whether sharing negative or sensationalized information is useful for containing a pandemic. It’s impossible for any news media outlet to cover every bit of information, so story selection and prioritization of information is unavoidable and necessary. From the beginning, the WHO has criticized what it called an “infodemic,” which is an overabundance of information that can be either inaccurate or useless. FAIR has criticized news media for not prioritizing scientific coverage of how people get infected (4/11/20, 5/9/20), sensationalist reports that incite panicked and racist responses (3/6/20, 5/7/20), or misleading coverage that instills a false sense of security (5/27/20) or resigned helplessness (3/20/20, 5/1/20).

When the Times/ProPublica criticize the Chinese government for trying to “steer the narrative not only to prevent panic and debunk damaging falsehoods domestically,” but in order to “make the virus look less severe” and “the authorities more capable,” they omit that not only have the Chinese government’s pandemic results been superior to those achieved by most other governments, but that delivery of accurate information to the public was critical to that success. A visitor to China early in the outbreak (HuffPost, 1/30/20) noted that coronavirus coverage dominated all other topics, and prioritized explaining the rationale behind government measures, scientific information on how it spreads, and reports encouraging confidence and compliance with government directives:

Another really interesting manifestation of the power of government is the news. The coronavirus may be big news internationally, but in China, it’s the only news right now…. While China’s tight control of the media has many pitfalls, it seems uniquely well-suited for keeping an epidemic under control.

Other people living in China have testified that because the vast majority of the Chinese people express trust and support for their government, Chinese media’s unified messaging and emphasis allowed for a much more unified response and widespread compliance with government directives to prevent panic and infection.


Deadly censorship

Studies of right-wing coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic “paint a picture of a media ecosystem that amplifies misinformation, entertains conspiracy theories and discourages audiences from taking concrete steps to protect themselves and others” (Washington Post, 6/28/20).

In contrast, influential US media outlets like Fox News have been criticized by doctors for eroding trust in medicine, scientists and other data (NBC, 12/18/20). Numerous media studies of pandemic coverage (Washington Post, 6/28/20) have found that contradictory US media coverage has led millions of Americans to believe that the pandemic threat is exaggerated, join anti-quarantine protests, refuse to comply with wearing masks and social distancing measures, as well as panic shop for toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks, leading to shortages across the country at the beginning of the outbreak. The US has also allowed misinformation and conspiracy theories peddled by the notorious Plandemic documentary and right-wing media before social media giants like Twitter and Facebook began suppressing them.

The Times/ProPublica report also ignored how the US government engages in censorship and narrative controls in order to lie to the public, and crack down on actual whistleblowers. These actions are consistent with the deliberate mass infection strategy that the administration contemplated; whether or not that was the actual agenda, the government’s policies led to catastrophic deaths. These omissions create the misimpression that China’s government was uniquely incompetent and dishonest in its response to Covid, when any fair comparison would belie this.

It is important for American journalists to combat these misperceptions, so that the US can learn from China’s response on how to better deal with the current crisis—saving lives in this as well as future pandemics, as well as reducing tensions between the nuclear powers US and China.

The Trump press corps prepares for a new era

Columbia Journalism Review - January 20, 2021 - 10:47am
As the Trump administration ends, and the Biden administration begins, major news networks and outlets are shaking up their White House reporting staff. At the New York Times, Maggie Haberman will be stepping down from her role as White House correspondent to write a book about the Trump presidency. She will continue covering politics. The […]

‘The Lost Cause in Some Ways Won the Civil War’

FAIR - January 20, 2021 - 10:35am


Janine Jackson interviewed historian Keri Leigh Merritt about the New Lost Cause for the January 15, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men (Cambridge, 2017)

Janine Jackson: You can feel the eagerness of many people, including in the media, to get over January 6, to section those people off as outliers with little to do with the US conversation, much less the mainstream Republican Party, and why don’t we move along to the healing already? Donald Trump, in this rendering, is a unique, lamentable phenomenon that doesn’t represent who “we” are as a country, and when he leaves, those hateful ideas will leave with him.

Black Americans, anyway, know the price of healing without reckoning, because we pay it. And historians, too, are shaking their heads at descriptions of the attack on the Capitol as “unpredictable” and “unprecedented,” because, while it was many things, it wasn’t that.

People are ready to take on a more complicated understanding of this country’s roots. But will news media help inform that conversation, or just inflame, or even worse, ignore it?

Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian, author and filmmaker. She’s author of the book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and co-editor of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class and Power. She’s also working on a new film on the Civil War. She joins us now by phone from Atlanta. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Keri Leigh Merritt.

Keri Leigh Merritt: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: In the essay that you co-wrote with Rhae Lynn Barnes for CNN.com, you call the Lost Cause of the Confederacy “America’s most successful disinformation campaign.” Folks are kind of talking about the Lost Cause as an idea, but there’s not necessarily a deep understanding of what that’s really all about. I wonder if you can talk about that, and the resonances that lead you and others to talk about Trumpism with reference to a kind of New Lost Cause.

Keri Leigh Merritt: “I think we’ve underestimated how much you can whip up racism and xenophobia by just saying, ‘You were robbed of this, you’ve got something to be angry over, you’ve got something to be aggrieved about.’”

KLM: Right. So I think what’s happening today definitely has its roots in the mid–19th century. And obviously, we’re not the only historians to say this, or to be saying it for the last five years; as you were talking about, we’ve all been saying this since Charlottesville. And to be quite honest, Black Americans and Indigenous Americans, they’ve been saying this for four centuries now. So this is not a surprise to people who have been oppressed in America; it’s only coming as a surprise to white people, and people who have been in a privileged enough position to really not have to know the history, the really bad history, the bad side of our country’s history.

So a lot of the reason they don’t know this bad side of the history is because of the Lost Cause. And the Lost Cause is also known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It was basically an ahistorical theory which accomplished two things: One was that all white Southerners supposedly fought for the Confederacy, valiantly and willingly, and really believed in the cause; and they made it into more of a states’ rights issue than the real cause, which was, of course, slavery. And then the second part of the Lost Cause mythology is that all these whites were fighting valiantly for the Confederacy because slavery wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t a bad institution; it was really a benign institution run by these benevolent, Christian men who were trying to uplift and take care of these kind of happy slaves. It’s that kind of imagery that’s in Gone With the Wind and some of these popular cultural representations that all of us know.

But, essentially, the Lost Cause helped to solidify the white South, even up until the very recent past; Georgia, obviously, was an outlier in that this year. But even up until this day, the Deep South, where slavery was at its apex, has traditionally, since Reconstruction, disenfranchised all the Black voters that it could, and united white Southerners of all classes in a white-supremacist, racist ideology that is actually rooted in this Lost Cause–ism.

And we argue that Lost Cause–ism is a type of grievance, right, a way that you get people to be white supremacists and to really have a lot of racial hatred in them, especially among poor whites, or working-class whites, who would have more in common on an economic level or a labor level with other working-class people from different races. You have to engender that by not only rhetoric, but by using grievance as a tool.

And I think we’ve underestimated how much you can whip up racism and xenophobia by just saying, “You were robbed of this, you’ve got something to be angry over, you’ve got something to be aggrieved about.” And scholars like Heather Cox Richardson have shown how this Southern sense of grievance, and white supremacists who are feeling like they were losing control of the country in the 19th century, this ideology really spread west, and then it also took over the whole United States. So essentially, the United States becomes Southern white supremacists, in some ways. And so really, the Lost Cause has in some ways won the Civil War, even up to this day, and we’re seeing how that’s playing out right now.

JJ: You talk about class fissures among white Americans. And media have fed the narrative of Trump supporters as hardscrabble white working-class people, that economic anxiety was the primary driver. But when you look at January 6, at least one of those folks came in on a private jet. And you’ve alluded to it, and I know we talked about it back in 2017 after Charlottesville: the misunderstanding, the kind of instrumental erasure of class difference among white people, is also historically referent.

On CNN.com (1/7/21), Rhae Lynn Barnes and Keri Leigh Merritt call the Lost Cause of the Confederacy “America’s most successful disinformation campaign.”

KLM: Yes, and I have said from the beginning, as well as other scholars, yes, a majority of all whites supported Trump, until these recent elections, across all demographics, and there wasn’t a huge difference between affluent, well-educated whites, and poor and working-class whites.

First of all, I think those things need to be well-defined, because you have a lot of affluent whites that don’t have anything higher than a high-school education. So first of all our categories are messed up in how we’re analyzing all of this.

But second of all, the real drivers of all of this are these elite whites. I mean, who’s running this? Elite white men from the heights of New York wealth and high society. And they’re engendering this class hatred, and we’ve seen it from the first time Trump began running, it was whipping up as much hatred and xenophobia among poor and working-class people as whites as he could. And that’s just a complete continuation of the Jim Crow playbook that goes all the way back to how white supremacists, led by slaveholders and their sons, used a combination of really horrible racist rhetoric, the police state as well—they’ve used police to arrest people for essentially doing nothing and incarcerate as many Black people as they could — and then also with just violence, with vigilante violence, with any kind of terroristic violence that they could get away with.

Reconstruction is the bloodiest period in our nation’s history, in terms of this terroristic violence. We still don’t understand the depths of how many Black people were murdered and lynched during these years. And so we’re seeing today these threats of violence, these threats of white supremacist backlash. And our point in writing the article for CNN is there have to be punishments for all of the leaders, very publicly and very obviously, so that we can hopefully deter this from escalating, essentially.

JJ: And that’s part of the problem from the past, was a lack of repercussion, that essentially, in the name of things we’re used to hearing today, “civility” and “not being divisive,” “reaching across the aisle”; there was a desire to “go forward and not back” and all of that, and that has an effect, that absence of repercussion for this sort of backlash.

John Wilkes Booth

KLM: Right. There were no repercussions for even the leaders of the Confederacy. And so because of this, because Lincoln actually was pretty lenient, but then, of course, an upper-class white Southern zealot comes in and murders Lincoln, and then it’s left to Andrew Johnson, who killed any kind of progress that was to be made in terms of punishing the former Confederates who led this uprising against our country.

And if that had happened, which was the Radical Republicans’ plan at the time—they wanted to punish the Confederates primarily by taking away their huge plantations, and then dividing those up and giving land to freed men and women. And so that would have radically, radically changed the entire trajectory of America; it would have not gotten rid of, but it would have really minimized the incredible racial wealth gap we see today. It would have gotten rid of a lot of the police state, because formerly enslaved people would have land, and thus they would have some political and economic power.

And so because we failed to punish the leaders of the Confederacy, landholding in the South never changed, wealth-holding in the South never changed. Some of these small rural areas in the South are still run by the descendants of the people who ran the big plantations. And power and wealth has never changed hands in much of the rural South.

JJ: Finally, when we had you here in 2017 after Charlottesville, you were talking about an unwillingness or a hesitancy on the part of many historians to “enter the fray.” That they were academics, and getting into the political conversation was sullying somehow. I take it you have not changed your thinking about the idea that there’s an important role for historians in public conversation.

KLM: Absolutely. And we’ve unfortunately seen the backlash of this, over the last couple of years, with professors that have been outspoken about the racist violence in this country, or the brutality of our racist criminal justice system, the people who have actually spoken truth to power about these things have been fired or run out of their jobs, or there have been mobs to literally threaten their families on a daily basis. So anybody who’s actually speaking out about these issues is facing a lot of threats, and in some cases they’re having to give up their entire livelihood, because they’re telling the truth.

JJ: And yet that just speaks to the importance of it.

KLM: Absolutely, yes. The powers that be do not want this information out; they’re cutting education budgets, they’re cutting humanities, they’re cutting history.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with independent historian Keri Leigh Merritt. She’s the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, which is out from Cambridge University Press. She’s also working on a new film on the Civil War with Rhae Lynn Barnes. And her article with Rhae Lynn Barnes, “A Confederate Flag at the Capitol Summons America’s Demons,” can be found on CNN.com. Thank you so much, Keri Leigh Merritt, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

KLM: Thank you.


A tale of two inaugurations

Columbia Journalism Review - January 20, 2021 - 7:36am

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:

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.

What Covid reporters can learn from Hiroshima

Columbia Journalism Review - January 19, 2021 - 10:32am
In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, journalists struggled to cover the devastation in a way that resonated, much as they do with the covid-19 pandemic today. In Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter who Revealed it to the World, Lesley M. M. Blume tells the story of how New Yorker journalist John Hersey […]

The Doctor vs. #MeToo

Columbia Journalism Review - January 19, 2021 - 8:22am
How an HIV specialist in Germany is using media law to erase reporting of sexual abuse allegations against him

Press freedom and the Arab Spring, ten years on

Columbia Journalism Review - January 19, 2021 - 7:26am

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.

New from CJR: Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman on Capitol coverage in the new Washington

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?”

ICYMI: Major stories you may have missed since the insurrection

Q&A: Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman on Capitol coverage in the new Washington

Columbia Journalism Review - January 19, 2021 - 6:19am
During the Trump years, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer delivered politics-obsessed professionals and observers a pre-dawn, must-read Beltway Bible as the authors of Politico Playbook. As the page turns to the Biden era, they’re betting that their expertise—and their Rolodexes—will power a new outlet worth paying for.  Along with veteran Hill reporter John Bresnahan, also […]

Even After January 6, Some in Media Can’t Kick Their Addiction to False Balance

FAIR - January 18, 2021 - 5:05pm


In the wake of the unprecedented events of January 6, many in corporate media—on both the editorial and reporting sides—have displayed a new and refreshing ability to apply accurate labels to people and their behaviors (“sedition,” “incitement,” “white nationalists,” etc.) and to apportion blame based on reality, not a wished-for fantasy of balance.

That false concept of balance, which FAIR has criticized for years (e.g., 9/30/04, 9/17/20), is finally coming under greater scrutiny. As Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan (1/17/21) recently wrote: “When one side consistently engages in bad-faith falsehoods, it’s downright destructive to give them equal time.”

And many of her colleagues appear to have finally absorbed that lesson as they cover this month’s events. Where previous coverage of Trump and his followers often strained to balance the positive and the negative (e.g., FAIR.org, 6/1/17, 7/24/19), reporting and analysis of the insurrection and its aftermath have largely cast aside attempts at false balance. At CNN.com (1/12/21), a news headline unequivocally announced, “Defiant Trump Denounces Violence but Takes No Responsibility for Inciting Deadly Riot,” using language corporate media in the past would typically have reserved for opinion pieces. In the New York Times (1/6/21), after quoting several of Trump’s statements to the crowd, Rudolph Giuliani’s call for “trial by combat” against the Democrats and Donald Trump Jr.’s “we’re coming for you” threat to Republicans who wouldn’t back Trump’s efforts to overturn the democratic election, reporter Maggie Haberman wrote directly, “Mr. Trump helped set in motion hours of violence and chaos that continued as darkness fell on Wednesday.”

Blaming a “nation…losing its sense of self,” as the New York Times (1/13/21) does, is a good way to avoid holding anyone in that nation responsible.

Considering that Trump has few allies left within the establishment—even many big businesses have publicly turned against him—perhaps it’s easier for journalists to cast off their commitment to false balance. But it’s far from inevitable. At the New York Times, longtime White House correspondent Peter Baker (1/13/21) proved incapable of escaping the magnetic pull of both sides–ism as he described the second impeachment of Donald Trump :

With less than a week to go, President Trump’s term is climaxing in violence and recrimination at a time when the country has fractured deeply and lost a sense of itself. Notions of truth and reality have been atomized. Faith in the system has eroded. Anger is the one common ground.

As if it were not enough that Mr. Trump became the only president impeached twice or that lawmakers were trying to remove him with days left in his term, Washington devolved into a miasma of suspicion and conflict. A Democratic member of Congress accused Republican colleagues of helping the mob last week scout the building in advance. Some Republican members sidestepped magnetometers intended to keep guns off the House floor or kept going even after setting them off.

Ah yes, the miasma of suspicion and conflict that envelops all in Washington without distinction, as each side gets their dander up over actions they find offensive. It’s all equivalent, isn’t it? But let’s be frank: The country has not lost a sense of itself here. One faction of the country has been encouraged and enabled by Trump and his GOP supporters to embrace an increasingly vocal and emboldened fascism. That the New York Times‘ senior White House scribe cannot bring himself to distinguish between these things seems reason enough to disqualify him from his job.

But he continued, describing the impeachment debate:

Most lawmakers quickly retreated back to their partisan corners.

As Democrats demanded accountability, many Republicans pushed back and assailed them for a rush to judgment without hearings or evidence or even much debate. Mr. Trump’s accusers cited his inflammatory words at a rally just before the attack. His defenders cited provocative words by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Maxine Waters and even Robert De Niro and Madonna to maintain there was a double standard.

That the comparisons were apples and oranges did not matter so much as the prisms through which they were reflected. Mr. Trump sought to overturn a democratic election that he lost with false claims of widespread fraud, pressuring other Republicans and even his vice president to go along with him and dispatching an unruly crowd of supporters to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.” But his allies complained that he had long been the target of what they considered unfair partisan attacks and investigations.

“Donald Trump is the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office,” declared Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas.

“The left in America has incited far more political violence than the right,” declared Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida.

The starkly disparate views encapsulated America in the Trump era.

That the comparisons are apples and oranges in fact matters immensely, but Baker, a journalist whose very job is to seek truth, appears to have resigned himself (and consigned his readers) to a world in which truth is relative.

‘Above partisanship’

Politico turned over its Playbook feature (10/14/21) to Ben Shapiro to make the extended argument yes, but Democrats are mean.

So, too, has Politico. The day after Trump’s second impeachment, readers of Politico‘s popular Beltway newsletter, Playbook (10/14/21), were treated to the musings of the day’s guest editor—racist right-wing Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro—such as:

Opposition to impeachment comes from a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior. Republicans believe that Democrats and the overwhelmingly liberal media see impeachment as an attempt to cudgel them collectively by lumping them in with the Capitol rioters thanks to their support for Trump.

Shapiro’s turn at the wheel was replete with false equivalence itself, equating Republicans who voted to overturn a democratic election with Democrats who “winked and nodded—and sometimes more—at civil unrest around the nation emerging from Black Lives Matter protests and antifa violence over the summer,” and to Stacey Abrams, who “never accepted her election loss” (but who had actual evidence of massive voter suppression, in contrast to Trump, who actively tried to throw out valid votes). Shapiro also downplayed Trump’s January 6 speech, finding it

unfortunately, commonplace in today’s day and age, and sometimes even end[ing] with violence (see, e.g., a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting up a congressional softball game).

Editor in chief Matt Kaminski defended giving a platform to this whataboutism, calling it part of Politico‘s tradition of “mischief-making” (WaPo, 1/15/21) and noting that MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes had served as guest editor the day before—”as an example,” according to a writeup in the Washington Post (1/14/21), “of how Politico had sought varying perspectives.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the site released a statement arguing that “we rise above partisanship and ideological warfare—even as many seek to drag us into it.”

Bigotry and providing cover for officials seeking to overturn democratic elections are not “mischief,” and “mischief-making” is not a journalistic value. Suggesting that Chris Hayes balances out Ben Shapiro is the epitome of false balance; as press critic Eric Boehlert (1/15/21) observed, while one is indeed on the left and the other on the right, Hayes is “an honest and insightful analyst, while Shapiro is a congenital liar who delights in hate speech.” The trouble is, honest and insightful analysts who support Trump are virtually impossible to come by, since Trumpism is founded on the rejection of truth, honesty and even coherence.

It’s this fanciful idea that the two balance each other that undergirds the otherwise absurd argument that publishing Shapiro rises above partisanship and ideological warfare. If both left and right are equally valid perspectives, and Politico offers space to both, then it hasn’t taken sides, and has adhered to the journalistic virtue of fairness. The right has learned it can endlessly game this system, pulling the center ever-rightward to the point that white nationalism and authoritarianism have entered the mainstream.

The good news is that most of Politico‘s staff revolted, as did many in the mediasphere (Washington Post, 1/14/21). Not everyone did, though, it’s important to note. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple (1/15/21), for example, called Politico‘s decision “a crummy, one-off guest-hosting gig that merits neither an apology nor a retraction from Kaminski. If editors live in fear of going too far, chances are good that they won’t go far enough.” Wemple predicted that one fallout of this will be that “mainstream-media editors will proceed with ever-greater caution in publishing conservative voices.”

Wemple’s fear is overblown, to say the least. For the past 35 years, FAIR has been documenting the consistent bias toward GOP sources across the country’s leading outlets (FAIR.org, 6/1/17Extra!, 5–6/04, 11–12/05), while framing progressive voices as beyond the pale. (Remember when Wemple’s paper published 16 negative Bernie Sanders stories in 16 hours?)  Wemple frames editorial “caution” as a bad thing. But if editors learn anything from the events of the last four years, it should be that “balance” is a dangerous substitute for fairness and accuracy. And if they can begin to distinguish “conservatives” from “bigoted liars,” that would be a step in the right direction.

Trump’s Twitter Ban May Be Justified, but That Doesn’t Mean Tech Giants’ Power Isn’t Scary

FAIR - January 15, 2021 - 4:07pm


EU commissioner Thierry Breton (Politico, 1/10/21):  “Regardless of whether silencing a standing president was the right thing to do, should that decision be in the hands of a tech company with no democratic legitimacy or oversight?”

In the wake of the dramatic storming of the Capitol last week, a host of big media companies, including Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest, Twitch, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, have all taken measures against Donald Trump. Making the most headlines, however, was the decision of the president’s favorite medium, Twitter (1/8/21), to permanently suspend him “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

It’s difficult to argue that Trump did not repeatedly violate Twitter‘s rules against “threaten[ing] violence” and “glorification of violence,” justifying his ban. But we urgently need to rethink the power of these social media behemoths, because there are plenty of other examples where their enforcement of their rules has been arbitrary and non-transparent.

Whether one saw the assault on the halls of Congress as a coup attempt (e.g., Atlantic, 1/6/21; Buzzfeed News, 1/6/21; Guardian, 1/6/21), a “riot” (MSNBC, 1/10/21; Wall Street Journal, 1/12/21) or “protests” (Fox News, 1/7/21, 1/8/21), there is no doubt that Trump did incite the crowd to invade the seat of government. Instructing his followers to “fight like hell” to stop a “stolen election,” he insisted: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

The media reaction to the social media ban was varied. Writing in tech publication ZDNet (1/7/21), Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols supported the decision. “The right to free speech doesn’t give you the right to right to shout fraud in a fractured country,” he said. “Twitter should have suspended Trump’s account years ago,” wrote Sarah Manavis in the New Statesman (1/7/21):

For years the president has been allowed to tweet anything he wants, with deadly consequences…. The case for kicking one of its highest-profile users off the platform is self-evident.

Chris Stevenson (Independent, 1/11/21): The Trump ban involves “a moral obligation in not spreading words that could incite violence.”

Meanwhile, Chris Stevenson in the London Independent (1/11/21) argued that privately owned websites have every right to remove their services from users.

Jessica J. González, co-CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press (1/9/21) and co-founder of the anti-hate speech Change the Terms coalition, hailed the ban as a victory for media activism:

Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Donald Trump is a victory for racial-justice advocates who have long condemned his continued abuse of the platform.

From the launch of his presidential campaign when he defamed Mexicans as rapists, criminals and drug dealers, to the desperate last gasps of his presidency as he has egged on white supremacists to commit violence and insurrection, Trump had used his Twitter account to incite violence, lie about the election outcome, encourage racists and spread conspiracy theories. He did not deserve a platform on Twitter, or on any other social or traditional media.

Others were not so heartened by the news. Writing in Politico (1/10/21), European Union official Thierry Breton worried:

The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space.

Michelle Goldberg (New York Times, 1/11/21): “I find myself both agreeing with how technology giants have used their power in this case, and disturbed by just how awesome their power is.”

National leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also characterized the move as a blow against free speech. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (1/11/21) was in the middle, stating that tech giants were right to ban Trump, but worried about the “scary power” they were amassing.

Perhaps the most histrionic reaction came from Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted (1/9/21):

The world is laughing at America & Mao, Lenin, & Stalin are smiling. Big tech is able to censor the President? Free speech is dead & controlled by leftist overlords.

In reality, of course, actual, self-described leftist and Communist figures are routinely purged from the site. Twitter shut down virtually the entire Cuban state media apparatus in 2019, removed tens of thousands of accounts it claims were linked to the Chinese Communist Party, and has suspended Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s account multiple times without explanation. These moves failed to elicit handwringing condemnations and essays on the nature of free speech, however.

With the power that he wields as president, Trump is undoubtedly the most belligerent user in Twitter history, using the platform to threaten genocide against Iran and threaten North Korea with “total destruction” (presumably nuclear in nature). So blatant were his violations of the site’s anti-violence rules that it had to craft new “public-interest exemptions” to justify not kicking him off. Although they couched their decisions in the language of free speech, the president’s wild proclamations were always a huge money spinner; Twitter lost $3.4 billion in market value overnight after announcing the ban last week.

While Trump’s actions clearly breached the company’s terms of service by not only calling for but producing violence, the affair brings up bigger questions about private ownership of public forums and the massive power social media giants like Facebook and Twitter hold over the public sphere. Sixty-eight percent of American adults use Facebook and 25% use Twitter. Both platforms are huge gateways and distributors of news around the world. Facebook is by a long way the most widely used news source in the United States, and both platforms have user bases far larger than the collective circulation of all daily US newspapers. They also give ordinary people the opportunity to share information and build communities, making them immensely important parts of the modern public square.

Adam Johnson (FAIR.org, 5/21/18): “Readers should know who’s helping bankroll groups that get to define what the most influential media platform in the history of the world deems ‘fact and fiction.'”

A free press is the cornerstone of any open, democratic society. But like it or not, in just a few short years, massive online companies have far surpassed the reach of legacy media outlets, with news generally being broken on Twitter before anywhere else. Companies like Google and Facebook have become monopolies by design, squeezing out or buying up the competition. There are no practical alternatives of any size to these behemoths, raising questions of whether they should be in private ownership at all, given their importance to the public discourse.

Western governments already exercise considerable control over the content of social media, but for their own interests, not ours. In 2018, Facebook announced it would be working closely with the Atlantic Council to help it curate its news feeds and stamp out false information (FAIR.org, 5/21/18). The Atlantic Council is a NATO cutout organization funded by the State Department and allied foreign governments. Its board of directors includes high-ranking Bush-era officials like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, US military generals and no fewer than eight former CIA chiefs. When organizations such as these influence the most influential means of global communication, that is coming close to state censorship on a worldwide scale.

Meanwhile, in 2019, a senior Twitter executive was unmasked as an officer in the British Army’s psychological operations and online warfare division. Corporate media reacted with a collective yawn, the news covered by only one US outlet of any note (Newsweek, 10/1/19; see FAIR.org, 10/24/19)—a response that raises many troubling questions about the relationship between deep state and fourth estate. The journalist who covered the story resigned a few weeks later, citing stifling top-down censorship.

Branko Marcetic (Jacobin, 8/15/18): “Trusting a group of faceless, corporate bureaucrats to decide what is and isn’t legitimate news is a recipe for disaster for the left.”

Perhaps this helps explain why the online media giants’ primary targets of censorship have always been the domestic left and foreign enemies of Washington. Facebook has shut down pages belonging to a myriad of anti-establishment groups, such as Occupy London and the anti-fascist No Unite the Right, while suspending those of alternative media like TeleSUR English and Venezuelanalysis.

Last year it also announced that, since President Trump had designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization, all posts presenting recently slain General Qassem Soleimani in a positive light would be immediately deleted across its platforms (Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.). “We operate under US sanctions laws, including those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership,” a company spokesperson said. Taking into account that Soleimani had a more than 80% domestic approval rating, this meant that one pronouncement from Trump effectively barred Iranians from sharing their overwhelmingly popular opinion online with each other.

Facebook has also deliberately changed its algorithm in an attempt to throttle traffic to left-wing news sites. Last year, the Wall Street Journal (10/16/20) reported that Mark Zuckerberg personally approved changes that would hit “left-leaning” political news sites harder than previously planned. Meanwhile, conservative and far-right commentators dominate the site, despite their constant and well-documented violations of the terms of service.

Twitter has also purged hundreds of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Venezuelan accounts, while constantly suspending antiwar voices and publications. Like with Facebook, left-wing independent news site Venezuelanalysis is a favorite target.

Private companies probably should not be hosting the largest online forums. However, if they do, there need to be transparent and enforced rules in place to deal with grave breaches of conduct. In this sense, it was a prudent decision from social media companies to suspend or ban the president, who has flagrantly disregarded those rules for years.

However, Silicon Valley corporations are far from neutral moral arbiters, and have a history of abusing their power. In 2018, it took barely 24 hours for big tech companies to shift their ire from conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to the left (FAIR.org, 8/22/18), deleting and suspending accounts with little rhyme or reason. Don’t expect this to be the last highly controversial censorship decision they make.

Keri Leigh Merritt on the New Lost Cause, Elisabeth Rosenthal on Troubled Vaccine Rollout

FAIR - January 15, 2021 - 10:30am


CNN (1/7/21)

This week on CounterSpin: As media sift through the fallout of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, it’s important to see that the insurrectionists were not simply victims of a modern disinformation campaign, hoodwinked via social media into believing that Donald Trump got more votes in the election; they were also participating in a tradition “deeply rooted in the American experience,” as historian Eric Foner put it, that says that only some people’s votes should count—that Black political power, as exercised in Georgia, represents a threat to the “natural” societal dominance of white people, and that violence is appropriate to neutralize that threat and maintain that status quo. That resonance is why historians are shaking their heads as media talk about January 6 as “unprecedented”; while shocking and dispiriting, it has layers and layers of precedent that need to be learned and engaged, if we are ever to actually have the racial reckoning that corporate media are forever insisting we’ve already had.

Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian and filmmaker, author of the book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Her essay, co-authored with Rhae Lynn Barnes, “A Confederate Flag at the Capitol Summons America’s Demons,” appeared on CNN.com. We talk with her about this country’s past that is never dead, or indeed even past.

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Kaiser Health News (12/24/20)

Also on the show: You don’t have to choose between the assault on the electoral process by violent, disinformed white nationalists, and a disease that has killed more than 380,000 people in this country and left many it didn’t kill with lasting health problems—both are major crises. And just as many people could and did predict something like the attack on the Capitol, many could and did predict that the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine would be marred by the Trump administration being the Trump administration, and the hollowing out of public health infrastructure. We talk about the troubled vaccine rollout with Elisabeth Rosenthal, longtime journalist, now editor in chief of Kaiser Health News.

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Q&A: Tsedale Lemma on new threats to the Ethiopian press

Columbia Journalism Review - January 15, 2021 - 10:00am
In 2019, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was credited with resolving a decades-long border conflict with neighboring Eritrea and releasing thousands of political prisoners. Ethiopia had once been named the second leading jailer of journalists in Africa by the Committee to Protect Journalists; Ahmed also promised to end state […]

Major stories you may have missed since the insurrection

Columbia Journalism Review - January 15, 2021 - 7:35am

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.

ICYMI: Platform ban of Trump and Parler raises questions about speech and power

ACTION ALERT: What Can ‘Now Be Told’ by NYT About Pentagon Papers Isn’t Actually True

FAIR - January 14, 2021 - 5:30pm


The most important claim in the New York Times‘ revisionist history of the Pentagon Papers (1/7/21) is demonstrably false.

The day New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan died, the Times ran a story (1/7/21) with the headline, “Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers.” It purports to be the true story of how the paper obtained the Defense Department’s classified history of the Vietnam War that had been secretly photocopied by former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg. Here’s what Sheehan told reporter Janny Scott in 2015, on the condition that it could not be published until after Sheehan’s death:

Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to the Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to the Times.

In Sheehan’s telling, Ellsberg is a fearful neurotic, so afraid of going to prison that he makes foolish mistakes that could lead to getting caught—and so Sheehan had to lie to his source and make his own copy, because he was determined that, as he put it, “this material is never again going in a government safe.”

When the papers are published and Ellsberg discovers the ruse, Sheehan has Ellsberg say, “So you stole it, like I did.” To which Sheehan supposedly replied:

No, Dan, I didn’t steal it….  And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it.

As you can probably tell from that dialogue, Sheehan made himself very much the hero of the story, which is perhaps why he wanted it published only after he was no longer around to be contradicted. There was nothing stopping Scott, though, from calling Ellsberg, who is still quite alive, and asking him for his reaction to Sheehan’s account. She did not do so, but Daniel’s son Robert Ellsberg provided that missing piece in a response to the story on Twitter (1/10/21).

Robert points out that his father’s actions were not those of someone who feared prison; when he was arraigned, he asked reporters, “Would not you go to prison to help end this war?” Rather, Daniel Ellsberg was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to get out the secrets he was risking prison to expose.

The New York Times online story (1/7/21) on how the Pentagon Papers were published has a photograph of Times managing editor A.M. Rosenthal and other staffers reading the published document in the paper, and another photo (above) of Rosenthal congratulating Neil Sheehan and other staffers—but no image of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who was actually responsible for bringing the Pentagon Papers to the public.

Daniel has explained—notably in his 2002 memoir Secrets—that he would have given a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan immediately if only Sheehan had told him that the Times was seriously interested in publishing them. Which was true, but for reasons that aren’t very clear in Sheehan’s account, the reporter was unwilling to tell Ellsberg that. (“He feared that Mr. Ellsberg’s reaction might inadvertently tip the government off,” is the explanation proffered.) As Robert notes, this meant that Daniel had to keep looking for another publisher—increasing and not decreasing the chances that the government might learn about and seize the copied papers.

What Daniel Ellsberg remembers telling Sheehan when he found out about the Times‘ secret copy is, “You did what I did”—not, “So you stole it, like I did.” As Robert writes, “My father never considered that he had stolen anything”—and didn’t need a reminder from Sheehan that the papers belonged to the American people.

Of course, it’s impossible to say which of two versions of a conversation that occurred between two people is correct—even if one version has the strong whiff of something that one person wishes they had said. But there is an important part of the Times story that is definitely false, and requires correction—because it’s contradicted later in the same story.

That’s when the story reads, “Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never ‘gave’ the papers to the Times.” In fact, Ellsberg did give the papers to Sheehan, as the story gets around to revealing 38 paragraphs later:

So he told Mr. Ellsberg that he now needed the documents, not just his notes…. This time, when Mr. Sheehan asked, Mr. Ellsberg consented…. He arranged for Mr. Sheehan to pick up a complete copy of the historical study stowed in an Ellsberg family apartment in Manhattan.

So the big revisionist revelation in the New York Times article turns out to be false. Rather, if you read to the end of this 2,800-word piece, you find that “what is generally believed”—is actually true.


Please tell the New York Times to set the historical record straight by correcting its story to note that Daniel Ellsberg did in fact give the Pentagon Papers to the Times.


Letters: letters@nytimes.com
Readers Center: Feedback
Twitter: @NYTimes

Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

Featured image: Daniel Ellsberg


‘Being Neutral in the Face of a Fascist Threat Is Not an Acceptable Journalistic Value’

FAIR - January 14, 2021 - 4:06pm


Janine Jackson interviewed political scientist Dorothee Benz on the January 6 insurrection for the January 8, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

(photo: Tess Owen/Vice)

Janine Jackson: People saw for themselves the boggling scenes: crowds of Trump supporters storming the halls of Congress, busting into offices, yelling for lawmakers to come out, trying—minimally—to disrupt the ceremonial electoral count declaring Joe Biden president.

But the story will be, is being, shaped by news media, in subtle and unsubtle ways. Will media not just denounce Wednesday’s incredible actions, but trace them to their societal and institutional roots? And then go on to act, to report and investigate and challenge and demand, as though they really understood those connections?

Confronted with such boundary breaking, in multiple senses, many people will want to hear that it was just a small fringe group of zealots, abetted by a few law enforcement bad apples, in service to an aberrational individual president, who’s anyway on his way out. Will corporate media sell the story that things got scary for a minute, but belief in the system is the way to safety?

Joining us now in media res—it’s just January 7—is political scientist Dorothee Benz.  A writer, organizer and strategist, she has many years of work in frontline struggles here in the US. She joins us by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dorothee Benz.

Dorothee Benz: It’s great to be here.

JJ: My brain at first went to language, you know: Is “protester” the best label when the target is the democratic process?  Is “chaos” the most evocative description for a planned and predicted action with some measure of evident official sanction? Now I’m reading “unprepared”; everyone was “unprepared.”

But there are deeper questions about corporate media’s role here. Just to throw a dart: While they’ve recently begun to qualify it, elite media spent years referring matter of factly to “voter fraud,” despite its virtual nonexistence, because they simply had to suggest a Democratic equivalent to evidence of Republican voter suppression, lest they be accused of bias. So the idea that you can just declare fraud without evidence has been well-established by the press itself.

That’s one of the things I’m thinking of. What are some of the things that are coming to your mind as you look at this early-stages coverage?

New York Review of Books (11/10/16)

DB: The first thing that comes to my mind is Masha Gessen’s warning four years ago, after Trump was elected, when they said, “Believe the autocrat.” And in the intervening four-plus eternal years, as the left, and as Black Lives Matter activists and immigrant rights advocates, have raised the alarm over and over again about rising political violence, about the profoundly anti-democratic, racist policies of the administration, we have been called alarmists, we have been told it’s not that bad. We have been told, basically, to calm down.

And we could see this coming, as could anybody, actually, who’s been on social media for the last three or four weeks. This violent piece of insurrection was planned openly on unencrypted channels. I saw yesterday on Twitter, there was merch, there were people in T-shirts that said “Civil War January 6, 2021.” So “unprepared and surprised” is the last thing that anyone should have been, whether that’s the Capitol Police or the media covering this story.

JJ: Absolutely. Many people have noted—refused to deny, you could say—that everything would have been different yesterday, from beginning to end, including before yesterday, as you’re noting, if these people were Black, or were brown, or were disabled, really anything but what they were. I would add that that would extend beyond the day; had these been Black people, there would be real-world, lasting repercussions for all Black people, right? And if you complained, all anyone would need to say would be like, “1/6/21, man.” The point is, talking about how differently they would have been treated if they were Black, say, it’s not a rhetorical exercise; it’s not a game of “what if?” That contrast is really the story, right?

DB: It is. And it goes well beyond the obvious—I mean, so obvious that even some of the mainstream media has noted it—that Black Lives Matter activists would have been treated differently; that Native Americans, defending their land and their legal rights, who were waterhosed in subfreezing temperatures at Standing Rock, were treated differently; that activists who were just begging their senators not to kill them by eliminating their healthcare, were ripped out of wheelchairs and thrown in handcuffs. Yes, those are the obvious differences, as opposed to the kid glove treatment that the white nationalists got yesterday.

Dorothee Benz: “It’s not that they were unprepared, it’s that they were prepared for white nationalists, which to them is not a crisis in the same way that Black people demanding rights is.” (photo: Mike DuBose, UMNS)

But the deeper problem is really the entire white nationalist project that, as you alluded to in the introduction, this whole venture rests on. The fact that the police were so-called “unprepared”—I saw that word several times in the media coverage—it’s not that they were unprepared, it’s that they were prepared for white nationalists, which to them is not a crisis in the same way that Black people demanding rights is, or people insisting that public healthcare and national healthcare should be a thing.

The problem goes much deeper there. And it is both a problem of how we have governed, and a problem of how the police and the military have been central to white supremacy. Structurally, foundationally, ideologically, the function of the police has always been to defend the system as it exists, and the system is a white supremacist system. The ruling power started 500 years ago with settler colonizers; it went on to include genocide, slavery, strikebreaking in the more modern capitalist era. It has never included defending democracy. That is a central understanding of how the police work. They weren’t overwhelmed. They knew; they just didn’t think it was a problem.

JJ: I can’t keep playing that “imagine if” game, because I’m really thinking, every Black candidate forever would be side-eyed by the media: “So if you don’t win, are your people going to riot? We know that you all don’t really believe in democracy.” I don’t think media, as “Oh my gosh” as they are right now,  I don’t think they’re really taking on board the counterfactual that they’re sort of thinking about.

And then, more cynically, I think, in contrast, there won’t be the same kind of repercussions for people who, not just look like the insurrectionists from yesterday, but who think like them, except that maybe media might seek them out to say: “You’re the good Trump deadender; what makes you tick? Why didn’t you storm the Capitol?”

Twitter (1/7/21)

DB: Yeah, I saw a comment this morning from Ben Ehrenreich, who was talking about the media label of a “mob,” reaching for sort of a classist term, instead of calling them “‘fascists” or “neo-Nazi” or “racist” or “white supremacists”—and not calling them just “protesters,” because, rightly, they were trying to differentiate between, let’s say, Black Lives Matter or healthcare protesters—but not going for the term that’s really there.

JJ:  It is difficult to grapple with the language around here; we’re in kind of new territory. But what we do see is an unwillingness to use the terms “white nationalist,” to use “white supremacist” in connection with this kind of thing. And I think it is part of media’s desire to splinter people off, to say, “This really is a fringe,” and discourage the connections between these people and, in fact, the mainstream of the Republican Party, and of many US institutions.

DB: I think that that is absolutely right. There’s two things going on there, in that I would call it a soothing effort to make this not a bigger problem, right? The larger problem is not contextualizing it in white supremacy, the larger problem is not admitting that the entire American project is a white supremacist project.

You know, the media did point some fingers at Donald Trump yesterday, rightly, but they seem to exempt almost wholly the entire rest of the Republican Party. This morning, on the New York Times’ homepage, at least on the app, they had a bunch of quotes, and they were all from Republicans making them look really principled: [senators Lindsey] Graham, [Mitch] McConnell and [Kelly] Loeffler saying, well, this isn’t the right thing to do. As if these people hadn’t been feeding the same right-wing monster for the last four years, not to mention the last four weeks.

JJ: Right.

DB: So that’s one way in which the media is trying to create a respectable-looking set of Republicans in the middle of what is not…that.

The other is not talking about the larger shift here, which is the assault on democratic norms and the assault on democracy itself, which has moved from sort of a cloaked phase—you know, voter ID laws that we pretend are just about voter fraud, or that are somehow facially neutral or whatever; mass incarceration, which disenfranchises and creates second-class citizenship for millions and millions of people. Moving away from that cloaked phase to this really overt phase and testing what works, like, “Well, let’s throw some lawsuits at it, let’s try that. Let’s try to directly shake down some officials and threaten them. OK, let’s try that.”

In October, Rep. Mike Lee floated the term “rank democracy,” as if there is such a thing as too much democracy, like, “Don’t let the unwashed actually vote.” And that’s exactly what it is.

And that is actually both a point of continuity and discontinuity with the entire American project. It has never been a country that is a democracy, a true democracy, in the sense of a universal franchise, let alone economic and social democracy. But it has pretended for a long time that it is. And what the right is doing now is testing even that pretense, to see how they can proceed. And that is a genuine fascist threat.

JJ: And that’s the danger of portraying this as marginal or fringe or failed, right, portraying it as a “failed attempt,” because, as you and others have said, that failure doesn’t mean the end of it.

New York Times (1/4/21)

DB: Absolutely not. I mean, yes, I’ve seen a couple of headlines about like, “Well, Trump’s on his way out anyway.” And this morning, as I was listening to NPR, the reporter or the anchor said, “Well, what did [they] think they would accomplish?” You know, like they were talking about some kids on a playground. And it’s not that they failed at overturning the election; it’s that they succeeded in mainstreaming fascism and fascist tactics. That’s really the point. And I haven’t seen that anywhere in the mainstream media coverage.

Similarly, on NY1, or in a NY1 tweet I should say, to be exact, somebody was talking about how the property damage this morning was actually quite minimal. Yeah, it might be minimal, although when property damage happens at a Black Lives Matter protest, you would think it was a matter of national security. But I responded to that tweet by saying, “That’s beside the point. The assault isn’t on Capitol Hill property, it’s on democracy itself.” And that really has not been enough of the focus.

As a matter of fact, in a general kind of a way, this is a continuity from the entire Trump era, where media have gone out of their way to normalize fascist tactics and try to squeeze them, “square peg in a round hole” style, into the box of normal political imagery, where they describe something like—they had a headline yesterday, before all this went down, “With Objection to Election Results, Hawley Puts His Party in a Bind.” So they’ve turned this overt anti-democratic effort to overturn an election into an intra-party political quandary, thus normalizing what is not normal, or what should not be normal in an allegedly democratic society.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: In a real way, corporate media’s deepest role here is as champions of the capitalist neoliberal system that creates the real grievances that are weaponized and combined with white supremacist ideology—doesn’t create the white supremacy, but it drives those grievances that then become so combustible.

And for the lesson, therefore, from yesterday to be, “Don’t push for real social change, because that’s fighting, and that leads to violence,” for the lesson to be, “Now, both sides: both people who bust into the Capitol and Black Lives Matter and AOC,” that balancing. “Let’s have civility, let’s have color blindness, let’s look forward and not back.” If media come out of the gate and that’s the message, I feel like that’s almost the most dangerous thing that could happen.

DB: It is the most dangerous thing that could happen. If you just shift the language a little bit, and you imagine them saying, “Antifascists really need to reach across the aisle and be in a spirit of bipartisanship with the fascists,” well, then you would get the problem.

And that is exactly the problem. Part of it is the media habit, the very bad habit, of pretend objectivity, that puts everything in a “he said, he said” frame, even when one set of claims is factually demonstrable and the other side is demonstrably untrue, and pretending that those things are equivalent. But also, just on the surface, pretending that being neutral in the face of a fascist threat is an acceptable journalistic value. It’s not.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with writer, organizer and strategist Dorothee Benz. You can follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3. Dorothee Benz, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DB: It’s my pleasure.


Our year of pandemic words

Columbia Journalism Review - January 14, 2021 - 12:02pm
Language Corner aims to inform and entertain, and often discusses words and phrases in the news. THOUGH THESE FIRST FEW DAYS have already given us quite a year, let us not forget 2020 and the words that categorized it.  As we do every year, here’s a roundup of some of the “Words of the Year” […]

Wikipedia is twenty. It’s time to start covering it better.

Columbia Journalism Review - January 14, 2021 - 10:00am
Last year, as the election approached, we heard that the founder of 8chan had become an active Wikipedia editor. As reporters covering Wikipedia, the story seemed irresistible: the creator of the fringe image board, known as the breeding ground for the QAnon conspiracy, against Wikipedia and its army of dedicated volunteer editors, who seek to […]

Platform ban of Trump and Parler raises questions about speech and power

Columbia Journalism Review - January 14, 2021 - 6:45am
As Donald Trump’s rhetoric became increasingly disconnected from reality during the election campaign, spreading conspiracy theories about widespread voting fraud (for which there is absolutely no evidence), Twitter and Facebook began adding disclaimers, labels, and other warnings to his statements, and in some of the worst cases blocked them from being seen until the president […]

‘What Happened at the Capitol Could Not Happen Unless Police Allowed It to Happen’

FAIR - January 13, 2021 - 5:17pm


Janine Jackson interviewed the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on police responsibility for the January 6 insurrection for the January 8, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: We spoke with our next guest in January of 2017, in the wake of the mass arrest of protesters and journalists at Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the decision to bring felony riot charges against them. What accounts for how differently DC law enforcement behaved yesterday?

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard is an activist and attorney. She’s co-founder and executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: Glad to be with you.

JJ: So I just have one big question, really, which is, “What the hell?” And why is the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, along with the Center for Protest Law and Litigation, calling for public investigations here?

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: “There has to be exposure and accountability for every single officer, for every single command official, for everyone who was involved in allowing, facilitating, this white supremacist mob violence.” (image: WTTG)

MVH: I think what we witnessed yesterday, in addition to being an extraordinary event in US history and our lifetimes, is fully defining of what has been told to us over and over again is the neutral application of law enforcement, and law and order. Any of us who have ever demonstrated in Washington, DC, or been in Washington, DC, know full well the capacity of the police agencies here to shut down and repress completely peaceful protest. Our clients and we have been subject to kettling, to mass arrest, to projectile weapons, to being soaked in chemical weapons, to tear gas, and there’s been no hesitation to use this. The police have all the materiel, the riot gear, the personnel, the weapons, the tactics at their disposal.

So that can lead us only to the most obvious conclusion, which is, what happened yesterday at the nation’s capital could not happen unless the police allowed it to happen. And they did in fact allow it to happen.

So we are demanding an investigation, because there has to be exposure and accountability for every single officer, for every single command official, for everyone who was involved in allowing, facilitating, this white supremacist mob violence.

Our point here is not calling for police repression; our goal is not to increase police repression. What we need to do and must do here is expose the nature of police repression, and that is so evident here today. We know perfectly well that if there had been a peaceful demonstration that had come en masse to the Capitol and had tried to enter through the front doors, we would have seen a massacre, I mean, a massacre.

And here is a white supremacist group that had been publicly bragging that they were coming to Washington, DC, that they were trying to smuggle illegal weapons in here. And the idea that the Capitol Police were caught off guard, or were somehow outmaneuvered, is completely false. Over 20 years of litigation in the District of Columbia, in constitutional rights cases, we have seen, over and over again, the very sophisticated operation that exists here in planning for major events in the District, and for demonstrations and for rallies and for everything. And they have very effective and significant coordinated interagency communications, operation manuals, tabletop exercises, planning, mutual aid agreements.

It’s simply not possible, particularly in the post–9/11 world at the Capitol, that they lacked preparedness, or that they lacked knowledge for what was going to happen.

Janine Jackson: We’ve been speaking with Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. You can follow their work online at JusticeOnline.org. We will be following this investigation. Thank you so much, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, for joining us today on CounterSpin.

MVH: I’m glad to be with you.



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