Columbia Journalism Review
The Mueller report will be delivered to Congress and the public tomorrow. That’s about all we know for sure. Reporters covering the special counsel’s recently wrapped probe don’t know what the document will say. (How much will be redacted? How much of what’s left will be new information?) Nor are they sure of the exact format—so far, all we really have to go on is Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that redactions will be color-coded, and the suggestion, made by anonymous disgruntled Mueller investigators, that some sort of executive summary(ies) exist(s). Uncertainty is nothing new on the Mueller beat. Nonetheless, receiving, digesting, analyzing, and communicating 400 as-yet-mysterious pages—in real time—will pose a steep challenge for the press.
According to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, reporters at least have their key questions lined up ahead of time. How accurate was the brief summary that Barr already made public? How, exactly, did Mueller reach the conclusion that he couldn’t reach a conclusion on obstruction? Will the report expose any new sources of information on the president? Quickly finding answers will be a bigger challenge. As Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn puts it, “the tribes of American politics” will also be rushing to find their truth tomorrow. Administration officials and their Democratic opponents in Congress will be vying to stick their preferred narrative in the public consciousness first. On the sidelines, the Mueller-industrial-complex of armchair commentators, academics, and prosecutors-turned-pundits will only add to the noise (some more usefully than others).
In the past week, several astute observers have stressed that journalists should not take shortcuts with the report. The press, Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes write, rushed to the wrong conclusions when Barr delivered his initial summary to Congress last month. The summary was four pages; Mueller’s full report is 100 times longer. To make the most of tomorrow’s “do-over,” Jurecic and Wittes say reporters should embrace the complexity of what the report actually says, and not hype short summaries of prosecutorial judgments and the political reaction to them. “The decision not to prosecute a person for some alleged conduct is not a historical judgment that the conduct didn’t happen,” they write; Congress and the public still get to decide if the facts Mueller lays out about Trump are sufficiently damning as to require further action or reporting. Finding all those facts will take time. “You won’t fully understand what you’re looking at until reading the whole thing a first time,” Marcy Wheeler, a prominent national-security blogger, writes. “So after you read it the first time, read it again.”
In addition to reading everything the report says, it’s crucial that journalists also assess what it doesn’t say. “It is not supposed to be, contrary to many claims, a report on everything that Mueller discovered,” Wheeler writes. It is eminently possible that Mueller did not include all of his findings; those he did include, meanwhile, have been subjected to potentially invasive redactions by the Justice Department. Reporters should not assume the untouched report is comprehensive, but should apply detailed scrutiny to whatever redactions Barr makes, and not take his legalese at face value. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote recently, Barr—who, lest we forget, has expressed a broad view of executive power on more than one occasion—has significant discretion over what gets left out. He could, hypothetically, have petitioned a court to allow the publication of grand-jury testimony.
While reporters get into the weeds, the outlets they work for have an important counter-responsibility: to keep the findings in perspective. Whatever the report says, it won’t be a satisfying end to the Mueller story. It’s likely to generate “exactly the kind of epistemological confusion this administration generates and coasts on,” as Slate’s Lili Loofbourow puts it; even if it’s damning, “we’ll always want more.” Donald Trump’s policies have a clearer real-world cost: in the past week alone, the ban on transgender troops took effect, Trump vetoed Congressional attempts to halt US support for the war in Yemen, and Barr issued an order that could keep thousands of asylum seekers in jail indefinitely. We shouldn’t let the Mueller report obscure all that.
Below, more on Trump and the impending Mueller report:
- DNA info: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes that the release of the report will be a minefield for the press. “The DNA of news is to find a coherent story with a single, clear headline,” George Washington University’s Frank Sesno tells Sullivan. “This is a case where the media will have to fight their own DNA.”
- The emperor’s clothes department: Loofbourow’s piece for Slate is worth reading in full. “We fixate on secrets because secrets are how government malpractice has been accounted for in the past,” she writes. But “Trump’s wrongdoing is not private… Even the full unredacted report will probably do little but confirm much that we already know. Dealing with Trump means dealing with that fact—seeking an exposé is kind of a weird response to an emperor with no clothes.”
- Subplots: Need a Mueller refresher ahead of tomorrow’s release? Politico’s Samuelsohn, Josh Gerstein, Cory Bennett, and Kyle Cheney wrap up the “25 subplots to watch in the Mueller investigation.”
- The royal “we”?: Waiting, with the rest of us, is the president, who hasn’t seen the Mueller report either. In the meantime, the Times’s Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman write, “Trump is filling his idle moments—and blowing off any anticipatory steam—by turning to a familiar pastime: television.” Yesterday, Trump weighed in on Fox News’s decision to invite Bernie Sanders for a town hall, alleging that Trump supporters were shut out. In one tweet, Trump appeared to refer to Fox as “we.” Twitter noticed.
Other notable stories:
- Wired’s Nicholas Thompson and Ken Vogelstein are out with a 12,000-word look at “15 months of fresh hell inside Facebook.” Among the nuggets to emerge: some Facebook executives “considered it a small plus that the news industry was feeling a little pain”—from reduced traffic to news content from the platform—“after all its negative coverage.” At NBC News, meanwhile, Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar obtained 4,000 pages of documents from inside the company. The trove exposes Mark Zuckerberg’s moves “to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip, while publicly proclaiming to be protecting that data.”
- Top officials in the European Union aren’t happy with Facebook, either. As of this week, the platform requires political advertisers on the continent to register in the country where they wish to make an ad buy. The rules, which have already taken effect in the US, bid to limit foreign election interference—but EU leaders say they will hobble legitimate cross-border campaigns ahead of next month’s elections to the European Parliament. Politico’s Laura Kayali and Maïa de La Baume have the details.
- Earlier this week, The Washington Post editorial board opposed a bill—introduced by a local lawmaker in Washington, DC—that would extend existing transparency laws to cover publicly funded charter schools. CJR’s Alexandria Neason takes issue with that stance. “For a journalistic entity—opinion section or otherwise—to advocate against a measure that seeks to increase transparency is backwards,” she writes. “The editorial board’s stance echoes the arguments of charter school operators, instead of supporting a measure that would improve access to information about taxpayer-funded entities.”
- Two updates from the Committee to Protect Journalists: Amid a period of political upheaval, officials in Algeria expelled Aymeric Vincenot, AFP’s Algiers bureau chief, after refusing to renew his press and residency permits. And in Nepal, authorities detained Arjun Giri, editor of Tandav News, under that country’s cybercrime laws after he published an article alleging fraud by a local businessman.
- Vox Media is buying Epic Magazine, the publisher and producer that acts as a pipeline for magazine articles to become films and TV shows. The acquisition will “boost [Vox Media’s] video storytelling capabilities and give it a stronger foothold in Hollywood,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Natalie Jarvey reports.
- In divergent digital-revenue news, The Information, which has a famously high-priced paywall, may experiment with advertising, while HuffPost, which is free, is launching a membership program offering paid content and perks.
- James Murdoch—newly adrift of his family’s business—could further distance himself from his father’s conservative media empire by investing in a liberal news outlet, the Financial Times reports. (Another bet? Comic books, according to The Wall Street Journal.) Meanwhile, in Australia, Robert Thomson, one of Rupert Murdoch’s top lieutenants, slammed The New York Times’s unflattering recent story about the Murdochs, calling it a “rancid hatchet job” driven by “corporate self-interest.”
- Flying British Airways soon? You’ll have to bring your own copy of the FT. The airline has stopped offering the paper to passengers in an apparent backlash against negative coverage. Press Gazette’s James Walker has more.
Yesterday evening, Paris time, Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire. As it burned, photos and video—of billowing smoke; of flames raging in the cross-shaped interior; of the spire leaning slowly, then tumbling away—held global attention. French media were never far from someone weeping. “Pardon me… I am just so shaken,” one caller cried on Radio France. “It’s a treasure, a national treasure that has gone up in flames,” said another, through sobs. The late edition of Le Parisien, echoing the poignant religious symbolism of so much coverage, led with the headline Notre-Dame des larmes: Our lady of tears.
In the US, the story was everywhere. The networks quickly corralled their correspondents (disrupting at least one vacation in the process). As news reporters kept us abreast of firefighters’ battle to save the cathedral’s structure, magazines published more personal reflections. In The New Yorker, Lauren Collins recalled a recent visit to Notre-Dame’s roof, where she had checked in on renovation work. “Tonight,” she wrote, “I realized that we may have been some of the last people to stand there.” For The Atlantic, Rachel Donadio watched amid a crowd as a building that had “survived eight centuries of plague, war, revolution, and the Nazis” started to fall. “Messages come in from friends around the world—‘Are you okay?’—as if this were another terrorist attack, or a death in the family,” she wrote. “In a way, it is a death. In the human family. We are all shocked together.”
In many corners of social media, the atmosphere was funereal. Even people who could see the fire with their own eyes viewed it through their phones. They were “trying to capture in a few pixels what had stood for centuries,” wrote Donadio, who encapsulated the cathedral’s lifespan: “Built in the Gothic era, destroyed in the social-media era.”
Because this is the social-media era, misinformation about the fire spread quickly. BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko rounded up hoaxsters’ claims that Emmanuel Macron/Michelle Obama/“Muslims”/terrorists set the fire deliberately. (While the actual cause has yet to be established, French officials say there’s no evidence of arson, and suspect an accident.) The platforms, once again, attracted criticism. Matt Dornic, an executive at CNN, said Twitter refused to remove a fake CNN account because it had the word “parody” in its bio. (The account was later suspended.) YouTube, for its part, flagged several major outlets’ livestreams of the fire as misinformation, then, for some reason, linked out to explainer content about 9/11.
For the most part, who or what might be to blame seemed a secondary concern. People around the world led with their tributes, their reflections, and their grief. As Michael Kimmelman observed in The New York Times, no one had died. The global reaction, nonetheless, was overwhelming. Was it because Notre-Dame has been such a focal point of Western culture, both religious and secular? Was it something peculiar to Paris, which has always tugged on our heartstrings? Was it the abundance of shocking visuals, served to us everywhere we looked? Did we see a metaphor—in our troubled times—for lost permanence, lost steadfastness, lost beauty? What, exactly, did it stir in us? Admittedly, it’s easier to pose questions than answers.
Whatever the reason, an angry world and much of its media stopped, for a few hours, at least, to watch a tragedy and to try to process it. We weren’t silent—far from it. But the tenor of the coverage was a break from the incessant thunder to which we have become accustomed. Briefly, something old and beautiful commanded our attention, and our contemplation.
Below, more on Notre-Dame:
- The latest: According to French authorities, the structure of the cathedral is still “sound” and major paintings from inside have survived largely intact. Last night, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, vowed that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt, and promised that a national fund would be launched today for that purpose. (Hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged). For the latest updates, follow The Guardian, in English, or Le Monde, in French.
- View from the inside: Philippe Wojazer, a photographer with Reuters, was one of the first journalists to get images from inside the burned cathedral. He shared his striking photos on Instagram.
- “An impromptu memorial service”: Vanity Fair’s Erin Vanderhoof writes that Twitter was both a breaking-news resource and an “impromptu memorial service” yesterday. “In the face of an unfathomable, historic loss, Twitter became a place to mourn, to squabble about the right way to mourn, and to then hit ‘play’ on the video of the spire collapsing and mourn again.”
- “A different kind of catastrophe”: For the Times, Kimmelman reflects on the symbolism of Notre-Dame and the fire. “This fire is not like other recent calamities,” he writes. “Notre-Dame, where no one died, represents a different kind of catastrophe, no less traumatic but more to do with beauty and spirit and symbolism.”
Other notable stories:
- The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded yesterday. It was a big day for local outlets: the South Florida Sun Sentinel won the coveted public service prize for its reporting on the Parkland school shooting, while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was honored in the breaking news category for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. (As CJR’s Andrew McCormick wrote, the awards reflected a violent year for journalists.) The LA Times and Baton Rouge Advocate also picked up prizes, as did The New York Times and Wall Street Journal for deep investigations into Trumpworld, and Reuters, whose journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were honored for the reporting that put them in jail in Myanmar. The full list of winners is here.
- The Justice Department confirmed that the Mueller report will be delivered to Congress and the public on Thursday—once lawyers have finished redacting it. (We were originally promised it by today.) “This release comes right before Easter and Passover, and coincides with one of the longest recesses on Capitol Hill,” Politico’s Playbook team noted. “No matter what the report says, that DC will be empty is a bit of a boon to the president and his team.” Also for Politico, Darren Samuelsohn previews the tactics different readers might use to digest the report, which runs to nearly 400 pages.
- Over the weekend, Twitter took down several tweets linking to a news article about pirated content. The TV network Starz had complained that the article included screenshots of copyrighted material and “information about [its] illegal availability.” Given “fair use” provisions in US copyright law, the complaint looked like overreach. CJR’s Mathew Ingram was among those whose tweets were targeted. “Twitter seems to act incredibly quickly whenever there is a copyright claim, but it is considerably more circumspect in responding to complaints about offensive or harassing speech,” he writes.
- Bernie Sanders went on Fox News last night, sparring with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum during a town-hall event in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Politico’s Holly Otterbein writes that Sanders “emerged triumphant” from the broadcast. “In the days preceding the event, Sanders faced backlash from liberals who said he shouldn’t participate… But when it was over, Sanders had received an hour of positive exposure on the highest-rated cable channel—something none of his primary rivals have yet risked.”
- In February, Vice launched Vice Live, a flagship new nightly news show. According to The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani, the program has already been canceled. (The company said it would be “breaking out” some of the show’s “most popular talent and formats.”) During its brief run, Vice Live struggled for ratings and with offscreen tensions.
- Editorial staff at Quartz are unionizing with the NewsGuild of New York. In a statement, the Quartz Union said Uzabase—which bought Quartz from Atlantic Media last year—“seems committed to our core goals,” but that “their plans for Quartz’s editorial operation remain unclear, and with layoffs taking place in droves across the industry, our future feels uncertain.” For our Spring/Summer 2018 print issue, Anna Heyward assessed the wave of unionization efforts sweeping digital newsrooms.
- For CJR, Igor Bosilkovski checks in with Mirko Ceselkoski, the “Macedonian fake news strategist” whose former students attracted international attention when they churned out junk content ahead of the US presidential election in 2016. “For now, Ceselkoski says that the majority of his business comes not from politicians, but from his work with US trucking companies… ‘There are no surprises here, everything is legal.’”
- In an essay for ABC News, Elizabeth Thomas, a graduate journalism student at Georgetown University, reflects on going to study at the institution that enslaved two of her ancestors. Recently, students at Georgetown voted to start a fund for descendants of the university’s slaves, to be paid for by a slight increase in tuition. The university has yet to approve the measure.
- And James Murdoch, son of Rupert, maxed out his campaign donation to Pete Buttigieg, whose longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination has gathered momentum in recent weeks. Despite the hardened conservative politics of much of his family’s news empire, James Murdoch describes himself as a centrist.
Pete Buttigieg is having a moment. In recent weeks, the longshot presidential bid of the hitherto obscure Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has attracted intense media interest. Yesterday, “Mayor Pete” chatter amped up again: New York magazine unveiled its new Buttigieg cover package; Politico Magazine dropped its own, similar profile; and The New York Times put him on A1 (albeit below the fold). Later in the day, Buttigieg’s official campaign launch, in South Bend, made a buzz. “The only time I have heard as excited a reaction to a campaign as I heard today about Buttigieg’s launch was Barack Obama in 2008 and Ronald Reagan in 1980,” Joe Scarborough—who already hyped Buttigieg after a March interview on Morning Joe—tweeted. “Yes, it’s very early. But the reaction has been remarkable.”
Buttigieg stories usually hit the same notes—millennial; openly gay; veteran; speaks Norwegian; plays piano; reads Joyce; “it’s boot-edge-edge”; Chasten, his husband, the breakout social media star—the list goes on. Taken together, these talking points explain a large part of the Buttigieg boom. His generational alignment and sexual orientation open up legitimate new conversations about the direction of US political culture. Other aspects of Buttigieg’s media appeal, however, invite greater self-reflection on our part. He’s a white man in a cycle that has so far paid disproportionate attention to white male candidates. His liberal-yet-Midwestern-folksy positioning intrigues watchers of the horse race (fund-raising tallies are commonly touted; so are the assessments of Democratic operatives). His overt, cultured intellectualism makes him an obvious foil for Trump, without forcing us to think too hard about the structural forces that put Trump in the White House. And he’s fun: a TV-character candidate pitched somewhere between the West Wing and Parks and Recreation writers’ rooms.
Another big reason Buttigieg has blown up? Access. In her New York cover story, Olivia Nuzzi writes that Buttigieg “will say yes to any interview.” Yesterday, she reinforced that point on CNN’s Reliable Sources. “His campaign’s been very savvy giving a lot of access to really whoever asks for it,” she told host Brian Stelter. “He’s really everywhere… Nobody else is that accessible right now and I think that really counts for a lot. It makes a big difference in how much attention you get at an early stage if you’re available for comment or for an interview.”
The press, obviously, should welcome the opportunity to engage openly with candidates for public office. But access alone isn’t a good reason to lavish disproportionate attention on one candidate over all the others. Buttigieg has attracted some good, thoughtful reporting. Overall, however, it’s hard to escape the impression that we’ve let Buttigieg talk his way into serious presidential contention without demanding much substance. As several features on Buttigieg have noted, his platform, as far as it exists, is long on values and hopeful-sounding rhetoric, but short on policy specifics, at least compared to rivals like Elizabeth Warren. In the Times, Alexander Burns devoted a whole article to Buttigieg’s longstanding preoccupation with personality and messaging, at the expense of hard detail. In news coverage, however, that strategy is rarely more than a footnote. It seems, collectively, that we’re wise to what Buttigieg is doing. And yet we have fallen for it.
Buttigieg told Nuzzi that he’ll use “substance” to outlive his “flavor-of-the-month period.” (“What does that mean?” Nuzzi writes. “I have no idea.”) But he told Burns it would be “inauthentic” for him to outline too many proposals because presidents aren’t free to execute the letter of their plans. There’s plenty to be skeptical about here. To date, however, the bulk of Buttigieg coverage has contrived to turn him into a Thing, then marvel that he’s somehow become a Thing, with questions coming later. Will his moment last? Going forward, our coverage choices will determine the answer.
Below, more on Pete Buttigieg:
- Explaining the appeal: Nuzzi offers a memorable one-paragraph summation of Buttigieg’s appeal. “Sick of old people? He looks like Alex P. Keaton. Scared of young people? He looks like Alex P. Keaton. Religious? He’s a Christian. Atheist? He’s not weird about it. Wary of Washington? He’s from flyover country. Horrified by flyover country? He has degrees from Harvard and Oxford.” It goes on. Read the rest here.
- A media transformation: An interesting nugget from Adam Wren’s piece for Politico Magazine: “In [Buttigieg’s] first visits to New Hampshire, he could reliably fill somebody’s living room. Today, he’s getting stopped by fans in airports—though they sometimes mistake him for a reporter, he jokes, since he’s on cable news so frequently—and has a dedicated pack of national and international reporters following him, a byproduct of those well-received TV interviews.”
- On Fox: According to Wren, Buttigieg was the first Democratic candidate for 2020 to appear on Fox News Sunday. While the Democratic National Committee has sworn off Fox News as a debate partner, individual candidates are free to appear on the network if they choose. Tonight, Bernie Sanders will participate in a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at 6.30pm ET.
- Deep breaths: As Buttigieg coverage started to amp up earlier this month, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote that it was time for a “few deep breaths… A young, promising politician having his media moment can be captivating. It’s part of what makes politics a great spectator sport. And it might even turn out to mean something. But, remember, we’ve been here before. Howard Dean had his moment in 2003. So did Herman Cain in 2011. Somehow, life went on. Pulse rates returned to their normal levels.”
Other notable stories:
- The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced at Columbia Journalism School later today. Ahead of time, Poynter’s Roy J. Harris, Jr., and Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo assessed the likely runners and riders: they include The Washington Post’s coverage of Jamal Khashoggi, its murdered former contributor; The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on Trump’s hush money payments during the campaign; the Times’s work on Facebook and on Trump’s taxes; ProPublica’s gut-wrenching coverage of the border; and local reporting from the LA Times, Miami Herald, and Tampa Bay Times. You can watch the livestream here from 3pm ET.
- After the New York Post ran a front-page attack on Representative Ilhan Omar last week, a trade association representing Yemeni-American bodega owners called for a boycott on sales of the paper; the front page, it wrote, aimed “to harm Omar and her family and other people of the Islamic faith.” On Reliable Sources yesterday, Stelter tracked how the “right-wing rage machine” framed recent remarks by Omar as minimizing 9/11, then propelled the controversy into the president’s Twitter feed.
- CJR’s Zainab Sultan checked in with journalists from Sudan, where long-serving president Omar Al Bashir was ousted in a coup last week following months of protests. “Yesterday, video journalists were allowed to cover the demonstrations for the first time,” Sultan reports. “On Twitter, Wasil Ali, the former editor of Sudan Tribune, wrote that Security Services sent a message to all editors that ‘media censorship has been lifted.’” Others, however, expressed skepticism.
- During a press conference in Lima, John Hudson, a reporter for The Washington Post, asked Peru’s foreign minister how he would respond if Western sanctions on the government of Venezuela exacerbated the latter country’s humanitarian crisis. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was also present, said the question “showed an incredible lack of understanding,” and accused Hudson of blaming the Venezuela crisis on the US. “You shouldn’t ask questions like that,” Pompeo added.
- On the Recode Decode podcast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Kara Swisher that tech companies are abusing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—which absolves platforms of legal responsibility for content other people post on them—and warned the provision “could be a question mark and in jeopardy.” Writing for CJR after Devin Nunes, the pro-Trump congressman, sued Twitter last month, Jared Schroeder argued that Section 230 should be revised. On Friday, meanwhile, Tony Biasotti weighed the “real costs” to the press of Nunes’s latest lawsuit, against McClatchy.
- According to a Pew Research Center survey, Americans in urban communities tend to think local news outlets cover their area, whereas Americans in rural communities tend to think local outlets cover a different area, such as a nearby city. “Despite feeling that the local news media are less connected to their communities, rural residents express the same level of desire as urban and suburban residents for getting news from journalists who are personally engaged in their communities,” Pew’s Elizabeth Grieco writes.
- After city officials declared a measles outbreak in Brooklyn to be a public health emergency last week, Der Yid, an ultra-Orthodox Yiddish-language newspaper, published a scathing editorial against anti-vaxxers, and took the “rare step” of translating it into English, The Forward’s Alyssa Fisher reports. Last week, CJR’s Amanda Darrach wrote that mistrust of mainstream media among the local Orthodox community had opened the door to targeted anti-vaccine propaganda.
- Late last week, The Boston Globe unpublished an op-ed in which Luke O’Neil suggested waiters would be “serving America” by tampering with the food of former Trump administration officials like Kirstjen Nielsen, and listed “not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon” as one his “biggest regrets.” Shirley Leung, the Globe’s interim editorial editor, told WGBH that the piece was pulled at the urging of the paper’s owners. O’Neil said the column wasn’t a literal instruction and expressed his disappointment at the decision.
- And CityScene STL, a news website in St. Louis, also took down an article last week. The site reported that Eric Greitens, the disgraced former governor of Missouri, was plotting a comeback, but its sources for the story turned out to be fake. The Kansas City Star’s Jason Hancock has more.
Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House has had several bizarre side effects. The central political relevance of The National Enquirer, a bottom-of-the-barrel celebrity gossip rag, is one of them. The Enquirer has dallied in politics before: in 2007, it exposed that John Edwards, a Democratic presidential candidate, was having an affair. But it’s taken Trump to make the tabloid an enduring subject of Washington intrigue, a node in headlines about illegal “hush money” payments, sweeping investigations into presidential impropriety, alleged Saudi spying on a US billionaire, and more.
The Enquirer’s improbable relevance may be about to end. Its chief tie to Trumpworld has been David Pecker—the chairman and CEO of the magazine’s owner, American Media Inc. This week, The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Marc Fisher reported that AMI is ready to offload the Enquirer. A sale has been in the works since last summer, when AMI and two of its top executives finalized a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors over the Enquirer’s role, during the 2016 campaign, in buying, then killing, a story about Trump’s affair with a former Playboy model. According to the Post, AMI’s board wanted rid of the “hassles” that come with Enquirer ownership.
More recently, Anthony Melchiorre, the hedge-fund manager who controls AMI, added reason to sell. Melchiorre was reportedly “disgusted” by tactics that the Enquirer had used to break a story about Jeff Bezos—who owns the Post and Amazon—revealing his affair. That story blew up when Bezos, in a Medium post, suggested that publishing the story was politically motivated (Trump hates Bezos). AMI later said that Michael Sanchez, the brother of Bezos’s love interest, was the Enquirer’s source; Gavin de Becker, the security expert Bezos hired to investigate the matter, insists that Saudi Arabia hacked his client’s phone. (Bezos is apparently meeting with federal prosecutors about this, though no clear evidence has been made public.) Confused? Same.
Who would want to inherit this mess? Yesterday, Edmund Lee and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of The New York Times, reported that Ron Burkle, who made his fortune trading supermarkets in California and buying distressed companies, has been in talks to take on the Enquirer. (Given the Enquirer’s present political leanings, Burkle’s past ties to Bill Clinton raised eyebrows.) Lee and Sorkin cautioned that the deal could collapse; after their story published, Burkle dismissed it, asserting, through a spokesperson, that he’s not interested in the Enquirer. According to Lee and Sorkin, Burkle’s team was upset that its talks with AMI had been made public. AMI is keen to press ahead. By the end of yesterday, however, rumors were circulating about alternative suitors: The New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly namechecked Paul Pope, the son of the Enquirer’s founder; James Cohen, CEO of Hudson News; and—surely you saw this one coming—Bezos. (A source close to AMI called the Bezos speculation “idiotic.”)
Amid the political headwinds that have buffeted AMI and the Enquirer, it would be easy to overlook the financial aspect. The Washington Post reported that AMI has a recent history of financial woes, and that the Enquirer’s sales figures are not what they once were—since 2014, they’ve fallen by more than half. Kelly, at the New York Post, is expecting “a fire sale, far below earlier deals.” Once the “money-losing tabloids” are gone, he points out, AMI will still have Us Weekly, Men’s Journal, In Touch, and other magazines in its stable.
The Enquirer’s centrality to our politics has been a fleeting historical quirk. Money troubles are perennial; so, too, is the Enquirer’s central function as a purveyor of cheap sleaze. Its pending disentanglement from Trumpworld probably won’t change that. But it might mean that we can soon forget about it.
Below, more on The National Enquirer and its potential buyers:
- The Young Pope: According to Kelly, Paul Pope is the only Enquirer suitor to have gone public with his intentions. Pope “has hoped to one day regain control ever since the Pope estate sold it in 1989 for $412.5 million” and “has blasted the management style of Pecker for injecting a political agenda into its coverage,” Kelly reports. (Pope is estranged from his immediate family.)
- Burkle up: In 2012, Connie Bruck profiled Burkle for The New Yorker. After Bill Clinton left his orbit, in 2010, Burkle “finally went public with a bid to enter the movie business, working with Harvey and Bob Weinstein,” Burkle reported. “Weinstein brought Burkle along to the Sundance festival, and announced that they were partners in the purchase of several movies. They have since worked together on a half-dozen films.”
- Aftershocks: The Washington Post’s James Hohmann writes that four of yesterday’s big stories—the pending sale of the Enquirer; the arrest of Julian Assange; the retirement of Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister, as a federal judge; and the indictment, in connection with the Mueller probe, of Greg Craig, a counsel in the Obama White House—can all be viewed as “aftershocks” of the 2016 election.
- “Revealed!”: Last week, MSNBC’s Headliners broadcast a documentary on the Enquirer’s history of bending the rules. You can catch clips here.
Other notable stories:
- Shortly after Assange’s arrest yesterday, news broke that the US government is charging him not under the Espionage Act, but under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: prosecutors allege that he assisted Chelsea Manning’s efforts to hack classified computer systems. (By this point, Manning had already started to download information.) Debates raged all day. Is Assange really a journalist? (No, said Tim O’Brien.) Would his prosecution under the law in question really threaten journalism? (Yes, said Margaret Sullivan.) Will further charges follow—CNN says they will—and if so, on what grounds? For CJR, Sam Thielman lines up the “righteous scumbags” the First Amendment has required us to defend.
- Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo checks in with staffers at the LA Times, which is undergoing a revival under Patrick Soon-Shiong, its new owner, after years of Tribune/tronc turbulence. “At the same time, there’s been a cloud hanging over Soon-Shiong’s rescue operation,” Pompeo writes. Protracted union negotiations at the paper have held up salary increases for rank-and-file employees.
- Yesterday, The New York Times’s opinion section launched what it’s calling The Privacy Project, a long-term initiative exploring the disputed boundaries of our privacy. As part of the package, A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, reflects on the paper’s monetization of reader data. Sulzberger says that the Times is more careful with this data than many of its rivals; nonetheless, he acknowledges, “we aspire to more than simply being better than average in a digital ecosystem that is in obvious need of reform.”
- For CJR, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre report on a new plugin—launched by the cofounder of Gab, a far-right social network—that allows anyone to comment on any page on the internet. One user compared the plugin to “graffiti painted in the alley on every web page. You can take a look around and see what passersby are saying.”
- The New York Post drew rebukes for yesterday’s front-page attack on Ilhan Omar, the freshman Democratic representative from Minnesota. Channeling right-wing claims that Omar minimized 9/11—in a speech last month, she said “some people did something”—the Post ran a full-page photo of the collapsing towers with the headline, “Here’s your something: 2,977 people dead by terrorism.” As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explains, Omar’s remarks were taken out of context.
- For Star and Stripes, Kim Gamel reports that food courts, malls, and other common areas at US bases around the world will no longer show TV news channels “due to their divisive political nature.” This week, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which oversees retail services at military installations, ordered facility managers to play sports programming instead.
- Following a disputed election late last month, authorities in the Comoros, an Indian Ocean archipelago off the east coast of Africa, detained a prominent editor, and seized copies of his newspaper and two other titles, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
- And on Galley, CJR’s discussion forum, Peter Sterne, the former head of the US Press Freedom Tracker, is seeking input on a piece he’s writing for CJR about prior restraint, which occurs when the government preemptively blocks the publication of information by a news outlet or other third party. US media enjoy broad protection against prior restraint, but that’s not the case in other countries. You can weigh in here.
Julian Assange is under arrest. Mid-morning, UK time, a bevy of police officers hauled Assange, the divisive founder of WikiLeaks, out of Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he had lived under diplomatic immunity since 2012, and into a waiting truck. In a video message, Lenín Moreno, Ecuador’s president, confirmed that his government had taken the “sovereign decision” to withdraw asylum from Assange due to “his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols.” One of Assange’s lawyers said that characterization was incomplete—she tweeted that Assange had also been arrested in response to a US extradition request (British police later confirmed this)—another accused Ecuador of doing America’s bidding for financial reasons. As he was dragged away, Assange appeared to shout “the UK must resist!” In his hands he clutched a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State.
Assange’s arrest marks the end of his extraordinary, long spell in the embassy. He first took refuge there in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where authorities wanted him to answer charges that he sexually assaulted two women. (Assange and his supporters called the allegations a pretext to extradite Assange to the US, where he could have faced the death penalty over his work for WikiLeaks. Although Swedish prosecutors did drop their arrest warrant for Assange in 2017, the case has never been closed: Sweden is expected to provide an update later today.) In August 2012, Ecuador bucked intense pressure from the British government and granted Assange’s request for asylum; at the time, the decision was variously interpreted as an escalation of Ecuador’s hostile relationship with Washington, and a bid to improve its poor reputation on freedom of speech. Its government expressed hope that Britain would allow Assange to leave the embassy for Ecuador itself, but Britain made clear that he would be arrested the minute he set foot outside. And so Assange stayed put—for nearly seven years.
In recent months, Assange’s relationship with Ecuador soured. Last year, officials cut his internet access and restricted his access to visitors; Assange, they said, was in violation of an agreement he had made to quit meddling in other countries’ affairs. In October, Assange sued Ecuador, which he accused of breaching his “fundamental rights.” Late last week, WikiLeaks predicted, in a tweet, that Assange would be kicked out of the embassy within “hours to days.” In his final days of refuge, WikiLeaks said Assange was living a “Truman Show existence” under intense surveillance.
Assange’s lawyer says the Americans have finally got their way. Late last year, the US Justice Department accidentally revealed, in a filing in an unrelated case, that it has filed secret, unspecified criminal charges against Assange. As The New York Times reported, Assange “would have to be arrested and extradited if he were to face charges in federal court, altogether a multistep diplomatic and legal process.” The first of those steps, at least, has now been taken care of. Assange has been a wanted man in America ever since he orchestrated WikiLeaks’s dumps of incriminating government documents in the early 2010s, in particular the diplomatic cables leaked by Chelsea Manning. His publication, in 2016, of emails stolen from senior Democratic Party officials by Russian operatives hardly helped his case. Going forward, journalists will need to be vigilant. Assange’s case is specific, but the way the Justice Department responds to his arrest could have serious implications for all of us.
This day was always likely to come. As governments change, so, too, do their diplomatic alignments: since he took office in Ecuador in 2017, Moreno has reportedly been looking for ways to rid himself of Assange, calling him “an inherited problem.” While we wait for more information, it’s interesting to take a moment to reflect on Assange’s years in exile. Mostly, we forgot about him; sometimes—during bursts of media attention related to his work, health, or associates—he cast a long, familiar shadow across the public eye. With his actions on behalf of the Russians in 2016, he chiseled himself, indelibly, into the annals of American history. It’s an extraordinary story.
Below, more on Julian Assange:
- Support: Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, were among those to tweet their support for Assange this morning. So, too, did the actress Pamela Anderson, a longtime contact and supporter of Assange. “How could you Equador? (Because he exposed you),” she tweeted. “How could you UK? Of course—you are America’s bitch and you need a diversion from your idiotic Brexit bullshit.”
- Press freedom implications: In November, CJR’s Mathew Ingram asked whether the Justice Department’s secret indictment of Assange poses a threat to journalism. “Press freedom and First Amendment advocates are afraid prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder could be a slippery slope,” Ingram writes. “Although the shadowy organization is not officially a journalistic one, receiving classified documents from a source and then publishing them is something many media organizations do routinely.”
- Manafort: In December, Kenneth P. Vogel and Nicholas Casey reported for the Times that in 2017, Paul Manafort, Trump’s now-jailed former campaign chairman, offered to mediate between Moreno and the US government for the handover of Assange. The Times story followed a contentious report, in The Guardian, that Manafort met three times with Assange in the embassy, including around the time he was appointed to the Trump campaign, in 2016. Other outlets were not able to match the reporting.
- A man without a country: In 2017, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote a masterly profile of Assange for The New Yorker. Khatchadourian repeatedly visited Assange in the embassy. “Out of concerns about security, and also perhaps because paparazzi occasionally wait for him on the street, he rarely parts the drapes in the daytime, or stands at the balcony. He lives in a continuous state of hypervigilance, believing that the Embassy could be stormed at any moment.”
Other notable stories:
- The National Enquirer is up for sale. According to The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Marc Fisher, Anthony Melchiorre, the hedge-fund manager who controls the Enquirer’s owner, American Media Inc., is pressuring that company to sell—partly for financial reasons, partly because he has grown “disgusted” by the Enquirer’s reporting tactics. The Enquirer’s tactics, of course, are not new, but AMI boss David Pecker’s close relationship with Trump—see: the Enquirer’s work to “catch and kill” stories during the campaign; the recent Jeff Bezos imbroglio—has brought intense scrutiny. CNN reports that Bezos will soon meet with federal prosecutors; he has claimed (without publishing evidence) that Saudi Arabia was behind the Enquirer story about his love life.
- Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—an area with a large Orthodox Jewish community where 228 cases of measles have been confirmed in the past six months. For CJR, Amanda Darrach writes that de Blasio’s mandate “has tested the information ecosystem in Williamsburg, where many in the Orthodox community eschew traditional news coverage, sometimes deeming it biased against them. That, in turn, has opened the gates for targeted, and often misleading, information about measles and the vaccine.”
- CJR’s Justin Ray explores the flawed, “both sides” logic behind the new project that Chris Evans—also known as Captain America—is developing to “promote respectful discourse.” The planned site, Ray argues, “appears a ham-fisted effort that might boost misinformation and partisanship.” As Andrew Beaujon, a senior editor at Washingtonian magazine, tells Ray: “It’s this centrist fantasy that if we only listened to each other we’d be able to make up our own minds about an issue.”
- For New York’s Intelligencer, Luke O’Neil collected stories from readers who say “ideological brain poisoning” by Fox News transformed people close to them: “Whatever the actual direction of causality, there are many, many Americans who blame Fox News for changes in their loved ones, and many people out there who feel as though their friends and family members have been lost to a 24/7 stream of right-wing propaganda.” Speaking of Fox viewers: some Trump allies view Fox Business host Lou Dobbs as “the most influential person in the president’s ear,” the Post’s Robert Costa reports.
- Lara Logan—who retracted a report on Benghazi as a correspondent at CBS, then said, in February, that the mainstream media was stacked with left-wing “propagandists”—has taken a job at Sinclair, where she will cover the US–Mexico border, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr writes. NPR’s David Folkenflik notes that Sinclair has made a number of “Fox-like moves” recently. Eric Bolling, formerly a host on Fox, will today interview Trump at the White House for a new Sinclair show, America This Week.
- In the UK, Roger Scruton, a controversial conservative philosopher, told progressive magazine The New Statesman that “anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts”; that Islamophobia is “a propaganda word invented by the Muslim Brotherhood”; and that China is “creating robots out of their own people.” Shortly after the interview dropped, Scruton was fired from his role as an adviser to the British government.
- And in Ireland, news website TheJournal.ie launched Noteworthy, an investigative journalism project that will elicit funding and story suggestions from members of the public. Noteworthy’s editor, Ken Foxe, tells me the platform received over $5,000 and “dozens of workable ideas” in the two days since it launched.
Update: This post has been updated with British police confirmation that it acted on an extradition request for Assange from the US.