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Op-ed: How to cover vaccine hesitancy

March 5, 2021 - 2:17pm
For months now, the Covid vaccine story has been largely about scarcity—who is eligible for the limited supply; who qualifies as an essential worker, or for which “tier” or age bracket; and how soon can we get more. Given President Biden’s recent announcement accelerating the timeline for broad vaccine supply, that storyline is about to […]

Toxic: A break in the Cuomo fever dream

March 5, 2021 - 1:23pm
Refusing to learn female reporters’ names, to speak on the record, to refrain from embarrassing comments. The Andrew Cuomo that political reporters know is entirely different from the pandemic persona during the worst moments of the coronavirus crisis. On this week’s Kicker, Josefa Velásquez, the Albany reporter for THE CITY, who has covered Cuomo for […]

On being part of the story

March 5, 2021 - 7:32am
Reporters in Texas have navigated a year full of high-impact stories. Last March, when the country was seized by the coronavirus, Governor Greg Abbott encouraged residents to stay home but refused to issue a “stay-at-home order”; local outlets worked to help people navigate the confusing guidelines. In the summer, amid protests against racism and police […]

No Megxit

March 4, 2021 - 7:28am

Last night, CBS teased a thirty-second clip from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, who dramatically quit—or “Megxited”—Britain’s royal family a year and six pandemic lifetimes ago. “How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” Winfrey asked Meghan, across a table and potted plant on the grounds of a friend’s mansion (not Winfrey’s or Meghan’s mansion, as had been speculated). “I don’t know how they could expect that after all this time, we would still just be silent if there is an active role that The Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us,” Meghan said, referring to the royal family, not the Tom Cruise movie. “If that comes with risk of losing things, I mean, there’s a lot that’s been lost already.” The full interview will air on Sunday, at 8pm Eastern. Already, the teasers have been turned into an avalanche of stories. Familiar battle lines—Meghan v. the palace v. the press—are being drawn again, and everyone, from the philosopher A.C. Grayling to the former tennis star Chris Evert, is suddenly a media critic.

The pre-Oprah waters were roiled spectacularly on Tuesday, when Valentine Low, of The Times of London, dropped a damning exposé/blatant hit piece, depending on your outlook, alleging a senior royal adviser filed a complaint against Meghan, in 2018, after staffers accused her of bullying; royal aides, Low wrote, contacted The Times “because they felt that only a partial version had emerged of Meghan’s two years as a working member of the royal family and they wished to tell their side.” The piece contained various other damaging claims, including that Meghan wore earrings gifted to her by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a formal dinner that took place just three weeks after state assassins killed the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The official response from Harry and Meghan’s camp was, arguably, more newsworthy than the allegations—the couple’s spokesperson called the story “a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful misinformation”; their lawyers said that The Times had been “used by Buckingham Palace to peddle a wholly false narrative” ahead of the Winfrey interview. The palace declined to comment to The Times, but said yesterday, in a statement, that it was “clearly very concerned” by the bullying allegations, and will investigate. (Yesterday, her supporters online contrasted this stance with the palace’s treatment of Prince Andrew, who stands accused of child sex abuse, and Andrew’s name trended on Twitter.)

New from CJR: Marc Lacey goes Live

The public rowing is both not at all surprising and also highly unusual. The palace does not tend to put out such statements, and it’s been a long time since Harry and Meghan sat down for a joint TV interview. The Mail reported this week that the Oprah interview has been in the works since 2019, when Meghan tried—after the birth of her son and several months prior to Megxit—to organize a sitdown with Winfrey’s close friend Gayle King, of CBS, but was blocked by royal press staffers who feared the interview would “alienate the UK press.” That horse, of course, had long bolted the royal stables. If anything, the UK press—and its right-wing tabloids and TV motormouths, in particular—had already been working for years to alienate Meghan, subjecting her to invasive faux scrutiny and routinely racist coverage (as BuzzFeed’s Ellie Hall brilliantly demonstrated by juxtaposing tabloid headlines that alternately scolded Meghan and praised Kate Middleton, the wife of Prince William, for identical conduct). In 2019, Harry spoke out forcefully against the media, likening its treatment of his wife to its harassment of his mother, Princess Diana, who was killed in a car crash in Paris, in 1997, as paparazzi gave chase. When they Megxited last year, Harry and Meghan were effectively divorcing the press as much as their inlaws; they dropped out of the pool system for royal coverage, slammed royal correspondents and their editors as purveyors of misinformation, and pledged to engage only on their own terms in future. Not that that has stanched negative coverage. Last month, after Meghan announced that she is pregnant, tabloids mostly managed to be nice about it—the Mail called the news “MEGnificent”—but the Daily Star published her pregnancy photo with her eyes blacked out, above the headline, “Publicity-Shy Woman Tells 7.67 Billion People: I’m Pregnant.”

This was a reference to a high-profile lawsuit that was resolved days before the announcement. In 2019, Meghan sued Associated Newspapers, which owns the Mail on Sunday, over its publication of a private letter that she sent to her father. (This was one of a number of suits the couple has filed against news organizations; around the same time, Harry sued Rupert Murdoch’s News Group and the left-wing Daily Mirror in connection with historic allegations of phone hacking.) Last month, a judge ruled that Associated Newspapers had breached Meghan’s privacy and copyright (a third claim, of data-protection violations, was not resolved). Meghan hailed the ruling as a victory over “illegal and dehumanizing” journalism and for privacy, generally; “We have all won,” she said. (Associated Newspapers, naturally, does not feel this way; the judge denied the company permission to appeal, though it can appeal that denial.) This week, the judge granted Meghan an initial payment, totaling more than six-hundred-thousand dollars, on her legal costs. She also wants a front-page apology and the destruction of copies of her letter.

The recent judgment in Markle’s case preempted a full-blown trial, which, needless to say, would have been grounds for an unrestrained media circus. Still, we’ll always have the Oprah interview. The British network ITV is set to air the sitdown in the UK on Monday night, the day after it appears on CBS in the US, though the broadcast could be shelved should the condition of Prince Philip, the Queen’s ninety-nine-year-old husband, who was recently hospitalized, deteriorate—or so tabloid scuttlebutt has it. (“I don’t imagine CBS will care,” one insider told the Express, “but ITV won’t be able to broadcast it.”) Long-standing Meghan critics have already wielded Philip’s health as a cudgel against the interview: “The new clip from Oprah’s whine-athon with the Sussexes shows Meghan Markle directly calling the Queen and Prince Philip liars,” Piers Morgan tweeted, “and she’s done this as Philip lies seriously ill in hospital. It’s an absolute disgrace.” It was Philip, of course, who coined the phrase “The Firm.” This morning, we learned that he has undergone a successful heart operation; whatever happens, British royal obsessives won’t need to wait for the ITV broadcast to find out what Meghan said, since the headlines will be unavoidable. Hell is other people, and also the twenty-four-hour news cycle.

Below, more on the royals:

  • “Manacles on the media”: While the judge in Meghan’s recent case ruled that Associated Newspapers violated her copyright in the letter, he also expressed doubt as to whether that copyright was hers alone, since a royal communications aide may have helped her write it; the judge called for a mini-trial to resolve the issue. Following the broader ruling, media watchers expressed concern about the precedent it might set. “You are putting manacles on the media,” Mark Stephens, a lawyer who specializes in reputation management, told The Guardian. “What you have is a situation where any letter that is leaked to a journalist cannot be published under the terms of this judgment. And it is unclear when public interest comes in to allow you to publish.”
  • Six of one?: Recently, Marina Hyde, a columnist at The Guardian, made the case that whatever you think of Harry and Meghan, the couple’s critics in the British press are worse. “Naturally you can see why some small-pond UK pundits simply can’t handle the Sussexes’ move to America. It’s a horrendous moment when you realise your competition for royal stories and interviews is no longer some necrotic dipsomaniac on a rival tabloid, but Oprah,” Hyde writes. “Much UK media reaction to Meghan and Harry reeks of this gathering powerlessness.”
  • Uneasy lies: Last week, Harry gave his first TV interview since leaving the UK to James Corden, the British comedian and host of The Late Late Show on CBS. Among other topics, Harry shared his reaction to The Crown, the royal drama that has been criticized by many British conservatives for its supposed inaccuracies. Britain’s culture minister went as far as to suggest that Netflix should explicitly label the show as fiction, for fear that “a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact,” but Harry disagrees. “They don’t pretend to be news,” he told Corden, adding “I am way more comfortable with The Crown than I am seeing the stories written about my family, my wife, or myself.”
  • Breaking this morning: Police in London ruled out opening a criminal investigation of Martin Bashir, a BBC journalist who landed a controversial interview with Princess Diana in 1995. Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, has alleged that Bashir used faked documents to land the interview, and urged an investigation, but officers said they were advised that such a path would not be “appropriate.” (The BBC previously apologized for the faked documents, but insisted that they did not influence Diana’s decision to talk to Bashir.)


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: They were arrested while covering protests last year. They’re still in legal limbo.

Marc Lacey goes Live

March 4, 2021 - 6:00am
In recent weeks, ever since Marc Lacey started running the Live platform at the New York Times, Sandy, his labradoodle, has been getting more walks. “I’m sure she’s wondering, ‘Oh my god, what happened?’ ” Lacey said. “ ‘He used to be gone all day at the office, and now he’s home and he’s walking me like […]

Five big findings from the Journalism Crisis Project

March 3, 2021 - 8:07am
In March of 2020, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism began tracking newsroom cutbacks in the wake of the pandemic. The tracker’s map tells part of the story of journalism’s ongoing crisis: an upheaval that hurt newsrooms, journalists, and—by straining journalism’s margins—the communities that those newsrooms and journalists are charged to serve.  One year later, […]

Is the press too pessimistic about the pandemic?

March 3, 2021 - 7:59am

Yesterday, President Biden gave a speech at the White House and said that the US is on track to have enough vaccine supply to cover every adult in America by the end of May—a two-month improvement on his administration’s previous timeline. Biden announced that the federal government has taken steps to accelerate the production of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, including helping to finalize a deal that will see Merck, a rival pharmaceutical company, manufacture doses. “This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” Biden said, calling them “good corporate citizens.” He also announced plans to get a first dose to every teacher this month. Across the mediasphere, these new developments were hailed as very good news. Some politics-watchers noted that they also reflected smart media management on Biden’s part. Eli Stokols, White House reporter for the LA Times, recalled “how Trump, desperate to win the daily news cycle, said COVID would be gone by Easter, then summer—and kept moving goalposts back.” There’s more benefit, Stokols wrote, in “setting moderate expectations, working to exceed them, and THEN doing the press conference.”

US health officials only approved Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which requires just a single dose, last weekend. The greenlighting was also welcomed in much coverage. The Washington Post greeted it, in a push notification, as added “firepower in the fight against the pathogen.” Spencer Bokat-Lindell, an opinion editor at the New York Times, put the new vaccine at the heart of his “case for COVID optimism”; Insider’s Hilary Brueck and Andrew Dunn wrote that it is “probably the best shot,” since it’s relatively easy to administer, works very well in young people, and potentially has lesser side effects than other vaccines. Still, such positivity wasn’t ubiquitous: Ever since Johnson & Johnson reported its trial data, some coverage has emphasized that its vaccine has lower headline efficacy rates than those produced by Pfizer and Moderna. The Post recently reported, under the headline “Johnson & Johnson vaccine deepens concerns over racial and geographic inequities,” that the expected deployment of the new shot to hard-to-reach areas could “drive perceptions of a two-tiered vaccine system, riven along racial or class lines—with marginalized communities getting what they think is an inferior product.” On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci toured the networks and was repeatedly asked what he’d say to Americans who’d rather wait for Pfizer or Moderna shots than get Johnson & Johnson’s; he explained patiently that all three vaccines are very effective and that since they were tested under very different conditions, minute comparisons of efficacy percentages aren’t useful. On Monday, Alex Gorsky, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, was asked the same question on Today. He stressed that the company’s vaccine, unlike its competitors’, was tested late last year, when COVID was at the peak of its spread, in countries with differing dominant variants. He added that the shot was still completely effective against hospitalization and death.

ICYMI: They were arrested while covering protests last year. They’re still in legal limbo.

These variations in tone, despite the broad underlying positivity of the Johnson & Johnson news, speak to a broader question that I briefly visited a month ago, and that experts and observers have since continued to ask: is the press being unduly pessimistic in its coverage of the pandemic? Late last week, the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci—who has argued repeatedly that the answer is “yes”—made her most detailed case yet in an article for The Atlantic that took aim at various public-health communicators, as well as journalists.

“The steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism,” Tufekci wrote. She then outlined five fallacies that, in her view, have consistently bedeviled COVID messaging: the undue fear that advising certain precautions will trigger a false sense of security and widespread reckless behavior; the repetition of inflexible rules at the expense of educating people about mechanisms of transmission, so they can make risk calculations for themselves; misleading media scolding about outdoor activities like going to the beach; excessive absolutism; and “a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action”—the framing, for example, that vaccines’ ability to reduce transmission (in addition to infection) remains a scary unknown, when sound reasoning and available evidence suggests they do have this ability, pending the collection of more data. “The public,” Tufekci concluded, “has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.”

But there is, of course, still ample bad news about the pandemic. As I wrote last week, case and death counts remain objectively very high—yesterday, they again topped fifty-four thousand and one thousand eight hundred, respectively—and optimism about a general decline in rates shouldn’t obscure that gutting human cost. Trump may be gone from the federal government, but state leaders continue to make foolish decisions: yesterday, the governors of Texas and Mississippi moved to roll back mask mandates and other restrictions, defying CDC guidance and offering every news show a fretful counterpoint to the hope of Biden’s vaccine speech. As Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor of science journalism at Boston University, told me last month, much coverage, in seesawing between good and bad news, has felt “schizophrenic,” and induced whiplash. Yesterday, the Times wrote, in an article on the reopenings, that many Americans “are wondering whether to follow the lure of optimism, or to heed the warnings of health officials who say it’s premature to lift restrictions.”

It’s helpful, instead, to think of such formulations as false dichotomies: health officials are optimistic, but in the long term, more than the short. The pandemic has been marked by a flattening of time—the arrival of March sparked innumerable Twitter jokes about how last March never ended—but time is essential to any assessment of what constitutes good and bad pandemic news. We need constantly to interrogate how our baselines have shifted—not just in terms of what we consider to be high numbers of cases and deaths, but also in more positive contexts. If the overall efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is worth noting at all, it’s in the sense that a year ago, the breadth of our current vaccine arsenal, and the pace of the rollout, was almost unimaginable; as James T. McDeavitt, of Baylor, told the Times last week, if Johnson & Johnson’s shot had been authorized before Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, “everybody would be doing handstands and back flips and high-fives.” Time also has a distorting effect when we look forward. The light at the end of the tunnel illuminates how much tunnel we still must navigate, which creates a set of expectations different from the one-day-then-the-next grind of the past year.

The best thing we can do to guard against whiplash is to situate optimism and pessimism not as contrasting poles of a coverage debate, but compatible—indeed, unavoidable—facets of this same everything story we’re all still living. As Tufekci put it, “effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe.” In her view, such balance has a practical benefit: encouraging “people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely,” she wrote, “can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment.” Yesterday, during his vaccine speech, Biden said that the Johnson & Johnson news is “a huge step in our effort to beat this pandemic, but I have to be honest with you: This fight is far from over.” Increasingly, and may be a better word than but.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • “The looming vaccine story”: Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, writes that with Biden’s new timeline for supply, the vaccine story is about to enter a new phase. “Stories about limited doses and the need for new approvals of new vaccines are about to be a relic of the past,” he writes. “Instead, the story looming on the horizon is about vaccine hesitancy and skepticism.” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, told Darcy that coverage should “start talking about how being vaccinated changes someone’s outlook and daily life,” and center the stories of vaccinated people from communities of color.
  • What the numbers don’t show: For Scientific American, Amy Yee takes aim at the “myth,” stoked by widely-reported polling data, that the pandemic has been less hard financially on Asian-Americans than on Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. Working-class Asian-Americans, Yee writes, “are woefully neglected by researchers, academics and pollsters” and consequently overlooked by the press and policymakers. “Coverage about struggling Asian Americans and unemployment are a fraction of similar coverage about other racial groups,” Yee writes.
  • Fatphobia and the press: On The Takeaway, Rebeca Ibarra spoke with Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist who has covered weight stigma, about the role of the press in amplifying fatphobic narratives before and during the pandemic. Early on, researchers noticed a correlation between weight and COVID outcomes; “they were not saying that higher body weights cause the severe COVID… but that’s not how it got reported in the media,” Sole-Smith said. “It was presented as a causal relationship, which is not scientifically true. That’s when we started to see negative bias against high body weights really spike.”
  • The media-business angle: For the Daily Beast, Sophia June profiles four alt-weeklies that figured out how to survive the pandemic, despite early predictions that it would spell their financial demise. “While so much news coverage of alt-weeklies has eulogized them before they’re gone, perhaps the real story is one of resilience,” June writes. “Because for all the stories about the end of alt-weeklies, there are many that, against all odds, have survived. In true alt-weekly edge, it’s a stubborn, punk refusal to let go.”
  • The press-freedom angle: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China surveyed its members about worsening press freedom in the country. Their responses highlighted ways that the government used the pandemic to hinder reporting. “Journalists who sought to report in Wuhan, the city which reported the first cases of COVID-19, said they were harassed by police and forced to delete images or footage gathered in the course of reporting,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Others said authorities forced them to take an unreasonable number of COVID-19 tests or were threatened with quarantine—efforts they said were intended to disrupt reporting.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Michael Tubbs on disinformation, racism, and news deserts

They were arrested while covering protests last year. They’re still in legal limbo.

March 2, 2021 - 7:51am

On June 1, as protests intensified across the US following the police killing of George Floyd, Richard Cummings, a freelance photojournalist in Worcester, Massachusetts, saw dozens of police officers assembling in riot gear, even though the day’s main demonstration had wound down. He started to film them and take pictures. “Worcester’s never had anything with riot gear before,” Cummings told me recently. “It looks like the end of the world. It was crazy.” A few officers, Cummings said, were cracking jokes, including about shooting members of the public with their pepper guns; eventually, they noticed Cummings, who turned away. “I didn’t want to pry into anything, or get anyone angry,” he said. A different officer had given Cummings permission to stand nearby after he identified himself as a journalist, but after that officer moved on, the cops that Cummings had been filming tackled him. According to Cummings, who described his experience to me, one pinned him to a brick wall, twisted his arms and screamed about breaking them, called him a homophobic slur, cuffed him so tightly his arms bled, and dragged him over to a van carrying other detainees. Cummings’s mask came off; the officer refused to help him put it back on. Police also confiscated Cummings’s phone; when he eventually got it back, he noticed that videos had been deleted. “It really did freak me out,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea that there was even a chance I’d be arrested for anything.”

Cummings was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and failure to disperse. Two-and-a-half months after his arrest, he pleaded not guilty to all three charges. Five-and-a-half months after his arrest, a judge dismissed the first two charges against him. He still faces the third. Next week, a court will hear his attorneys’ motion to dismiss the case, on the grounds of police misconduct and lost exculpatory evidence. Another court date is set for late April. Cummings’s lawyer, who is representing him pro bono, told me that he is confident in his case, especially in light of the video evidence that Cummings still has in his possession. If the charge is not dismissed, it’s not clear—due to pandemic-induced delays—when Cummings might get a trial. “It seems like they’re just waiting everybody out,” Cummings told me. “It’s been going on forever, for almost a year.” (A spokesperson for the Worcester Police Department referred me to the district attorney’s office, which declined to comment on an open case.)

ICYMI: When a word starts to smell

Cummings’s is not a unique case. According to data maintained by the US Press Freedom Tracker, more than a hundred and twenty-five journalists were arrested or detained in the US last year—a twelve-thousand percent increase over 2019—and at least forty-three of them were also assaulted. Cummings was one of at least seventy-one journalists to be arrested in the week spanning May 29 and June 4. Most of those affected faced no ongoing legal consequences—but, as of the end of last year, the Tracker listed eighteen journalists, including Cummings, whose cases were still pending. In recent days, I’ve reached out to all eighteen to find out where they stand now. Four of them—Chae Kihn, who was arrested in New York; Robert Spangle and Pablo Unzueta, who were both arrested in Los Angeles; and Brendan Gutenschwager, who was arrested in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin—told me that their charges have now been dropped. Four didn’t respond to multiple inquiries. Ten confirmed that their cases are still pending. Some declined to comment further; others described a long-term limbo, exacerbated by a pandemic that has gummed up the legal system, and, in a couple of cases, by the confiscation of equipment and ongoing harassment by law enforcement and members of the public. Some will soon face days in court. Others must continue to wait.

Of the journalists still facing charges, a few have institutional affiliations. In the most high-profile of these cases (even if its profile is still not high enough), Andrea Sahouri, a reporter with the Des Moines Register who was pepper-sprayed then cuffed with zip ties while covering a protest on May 31, will go on trial next week, charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. She declined to be interviewed this close to trial; last week, the Register wrote, in an editorial, that the charges are “a clear infringement on the freedom of the press.” April Ehrlich—who works for Jefferson Public Radio, in Oregon, and who wrote recently for CJRwas arrested in September, while she was covering police evictions at an encampment for the unhoused in Medford. She was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, and interfering with a peace officer; the latter charge was dropped, but the first two weren’t and she faces a pre-trial hearing in two weeks. In October, police in North Carolina arrested Tomas Murawksi, a reporter with the Alamance News, who had been covering a poll march that ended with officers pepper-spraying participants, including children; he was charged with resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer, and also has a court date later this month. Veronica Coit is a freelance journalist in North Carolina, but had been working regularly for the Asheville Blade when they were arrested at a protest against police brutality, in August. They were charged with failure to disperse and impeding the steady flow of traffic. Their court date is set for early May.

The majority of those who still face charges are freelancers who either work for a multiplicity of clients or were just out documenting events for themselves when they got into trouble. In some cases, that status has caused them additional problems, including a relative lack of attention to their cases. Today, Lynn Murphy—an independent reporter who was arrested while covering a racial-justice protest in Richmond, in September—faces a hearing related to her misdemeanor charge of obstructing free passage. Murphy told me that her charge would likely have been dropped already, but that her lawyers wanted extra time to challenge a police search of her phone. She says that the lingering charge cost her a paid reporting job at a local outlet, and, initially, barred her from leaving the state, meaning she couldn’t travel to events she had planned to cover in Washington. A charge filed against Ronald Weaver II, an independent filmmaker who was arrested at an anti-ICE protest in New York in September, is still pending, as is a charge against Blair Nelson, who was arrested at a protest in Wauwatosa in October. Vishal Singh and Sean Beckner-Carmitchel—two videographers who were arrested at protests in Los Angeles around the election, in November, for unlawful assembly and failure to disperse—told me that they still don’t know if they’ll face formal charges; both must appear in court next week. Beckner-Carmitchel, who was arrested twice on successive days, has been identified in press reporting as an activist, as well as a videographer, but he told me he has transitioned firmly into journalism. Besides, he said, “the police don’t get to decide who is and is not press.”

The Press Freedom Tracker operates on a relatively broad understanding of who is and isn’t press; what matters, it says, “is whether the person was performing an act of journalism” when they were targeted. When Cummings was arrested, in Worcester, he was out in a neighborhood that he’s been capturing for a longer-term book project. His arrest, he told me, has affected him ever since, triggering anxiety and panic attacks. “It’s just like this weird, uneasy, uncertain dark cloud that has been following me around for a whole year,” he said. “I know I’m not gonna do any hard time or anything like that. That’s not really what I’m scared of. I’m more scared of, I guess, the fact that it can happen at all.” His work has helped him get through it. Taking photographs, he told me, “has just been like a coping mechanism, to the point where, like, it’s all I do.”

Below, more on journalists and the police:

  • Minnesota: Last week, a judge in Minnesota ruled that Linda Tirado—a freelance journalist who was blinded in one eye after police struck her with a rubber bullet during the protests that followed Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last year—may proceed with a lawsuit against the city and the former head of its police union. The judge said that the allegations of Tirado and others “plausibly suggest an unconstitutional custom carried out by MPD officers of targeting journalists for unlawful reprisals.” Elsewhere, Deena Winter reports, for the Minnesota Reformer, that officials in Minneapolis are working to prepare residents for further trauma ahead of the trial of the white cop who killed Floyd, which is slated for next week. Per Winter, the effort includes “a ‘community information network,’ including partnerships with media that reach under-represented communities that don’t rely on mainstream media for news”; the city will also ask social-media influencers for help dispelling disinformation.
  • California: Last month, Sarah Belle Lin, an independent journalist in the Bay Area, filed suit against a local police department; she alleges that officers shot her with a rubber bullet and physically shoved her while she was covering a protest in Oakland, on May 30. Bay City News has more. Also in California, state senators have introduced a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from obstructing “duly authorized representatives” of news organizations who seek access to sealed areas at protests. A hearing is set for next week.
  • Oklahoma: Last week, lawmakers in Oklahoma voted to advance a bill that would criminalize the sharing of information about police officers—including photos and videos of them—with the intent to “threaten, intimidate, harass or stalk,” in a manner that “causes, attempts to cause or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress or financial loss to the law enforcement officer, or to the family, household member or intimate partner of the law enforcement officer.” Deon Osborne has more details for the Black Wall Street Times.

 

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Press freedom comes second to self-interest—again—as Biden lets MBS off the hook

When a word starts to smell

March 2, 2021 - 5:55am
Bryan A. Garner, he of Garner’s Modern English Usage, polled his 40,000-plus followers on Twitter in late January: “‘To trump’ is now a verb that should be (A) accepted as a neutral verb denoting the idea of vanquishing an opponent, or (B) viewed as invariably meaning that but suggesting the former incumbent of the White […]

Press freedom comes second to self-interest—again—as Biden lets MBS off the hook

March 1, 2021 - 7:05am

On Friday, a day later than expected, the Biden administration made official a fact we already knew: that, in the judgment of the US intelligence community, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder, at a consulate in Turkey in 2018, of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist, columnist for the Washington Post, and US resident. The report that Biden made public was brief and did not contain a smoking gun, but it nonetheless made a damning case. Ahead of time, the decision to release the report was a study in contrasts—it would mark, NBC wrote, “a new chapter in US-Saudi relations and a clear break from Trump’s policy of equivocating about the Saudi state’s role in the brutal murder.” Trump had kept the report under wraps, despite bipartisan pressure from Congress and legal demands mandating its release. He instead put out a statement explaining why he was “standing with Saudi Arabia”: it began “The world is a very dangerous place!” and continued, “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Separately, Trump called Khashoggi’s murder “a very bad original concept,” that was “carried out poorly.” The cover-up, he added, “was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

After Biden released the report, he continued to win points for transparency. On her MSNBC show Friday, Nicolle Wallace called Biden’s decision “exponentially better than the last guy”; her guest Julian E. Barnes, a national security reporter at the New York Times, stressed “that this is a return to the normal state, where a high-confidence conclusion by the CIA is given weight and not dismissed”; facts, Wallace concurred, “are facts again.” But the dominant mood of much coverage was scathing criticism of what Biden did—or rather didn’t do—next. His administration announced that it would be slapping sanctions on dozens of Saudis, but not MBS himself; per the Times, Biden concluded that personally punishing the de facto leader of a close ally would carry unsupportable diplomatic costs (despite having promised, on the campaign trail, to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”). The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer called the decision “pathetic.” The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who knew Khashoggi, wrote that Biden “let a Saudi murderer walk”; members of the Post’s editorial board, who worked with Khashoggi, wrote that Biden had given “what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East in recent years while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history.” On CNN, Jake Tapper asked whether “the difference between Trump bragging about saving MBS’s ass and Biden acting as if he has no choice but to save MBS’s ass” was just words. Ultimately, Tapper noted, MBS’s ass had been saved.

New from CJR: Michael Tubbs on disinformation, racism, and news deserts

The Biden administration didn’t only sanction various Saudis, but simultaneously announced a new category of visa restrictions, called “the Khashoggi Ban,” that Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, pledged to wield, going forward, against agents of any foreign government “who are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists”; on Saturday, meanwhile, Biden said that he would have more to say about Saudi Arabia on Monday. It does seem, though, that MBS is definitively off these hooks. A White House official told Reuters that while the State Department will today “provide more details and elaborate” on its Saudi decisions, it will not make any new announcements. And, touring the Sunday shows yesterday, Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, defended leaving MBS untouched. “Historically—and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations—there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” she said, on CNN.

The sad bottom line here is that when it comes to press-freedom issues, particularly internationally, there is less distance between Trump and Biden than we’d like to believe. Despite his coddling of MBS, Trump already sanctioned lower-level Saudi officials implicated in the Khashoggi killing—and despite his fusillade of “fake news” rhetoric at home, his surrogates commonly wielded press freedom as an American Value abroad when it served their purposes to do so. Vice President Mike Pence pressed Aung San Suu Kyi, the now-deposed leader of Myanmar, to release jailed reporters in 2018; Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, often stressed media freedoms in his dealings with countries including Kazakhstan and Belarus. This is not to defend either man—both abetted all of Trump’s horrors; Pompeo blew up at an NPR journalist and barred her colleague from his plane—but rather to say that Biden and his representatives must clear much higher bars than basic transparency and civility. It’s easier to punish your enemies than your friends; easy, too, to hide behind lame statements about bipartisan precedent. Does a sanctions regime that purports to protect the truth but doesn’t apply to those with the most power really deserve to carry the name of a man who was killed for holding power to account?

According to the Times, one of the key costs of punishing MBS, in Biden’s view, would have been lost Saudi cooperation on Iran. The day before he released the Khashoggi report, Biden targeted that country, albeit indirectly—dropping bombs, for the first time as president, on facilities in Syria with links to Iran-backed militias that previously targeted US troops in Iraq. Wallace, of MSNBC, called the bombing and the release of the Khashoggi report “a show of force coupled with moral clarity” that together constituted Biden’s “boldest moves to date in asserting American leadership on the world stage.” More accurately, they were our clearest reminders to date that the normality for which so many pundits pined is not a moral state at all, but one where strategic self-interest almost always wins out. The release of the Khashoggi report is a good thing—even if we shouldn’t have to rely on the CIA for the truth—but ultimately, diplomatic choices speak much louder than words on a page. We now have one more reason to believe that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing, but the world is still a very dangerous place.

Below, more on the White House and press freedom around the world:


Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Akintunde Ahmad spoke with Michael Tubbs, a rising star in the Democratic Party who surprisingly lost his bid for reelection as mayor of Stockton, California, last year after a local website targeted him with a sustained campaign of lies. Afterward, Tubbs called Stockton “the miner’s canary for the impact of disinformation”; he now plans to work on potential solutions to the problem. “I definitely see myself advocating for policy and really being a voice around the dangers of disinformation and also about the need for local press—the need for a vibrant and free press that’s local, that has trust, that has credibility, that can be as objective as possible and at least bring us to a shared understanding of what the facts are,” he said. (You can also listen to Ahmad’s conversation with Tubbs on The Kicker, by following this link.)
  • Last week, Lindsey Boylan, a former aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, accused him of sexual harassment. Charlotte Bennett, another former Cuomo aide, shared Boylan’s post on Twitter; Jesse McKinley, of the Times, subsequently reached out to Bennett, who agreed to share, on the record, that Cuomo had harassed her, too. Yesterday, Cuomo apologized for behavior that could have been “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” and agreed—eventually—to a fully independent investigation. Even before the allegations, Cuomo was in the thick of a negative news cycle that has contrasted, as I wrote last month, with his hero status of the early days of the pandemic.
  • Zeynep Tufekci, of The Atlantic, makes the case that much pandemic coverage is unduly negative. “We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead,” she writes, but instead, “the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.”
  • Jason Ravnsborg, the attorney general of South Dakota, acknowledged to investigators that he was browsing right-wing conspiracy content on his phone while driving in the minutes before he struck and killed a pedestrian last year. Ravnsborg initially told police that he thought he’d hit an animal, but, per the investigators, the victim’s glasses were found inside Ravnsborg’s vehicle. Timothy Johnson, of Media Matters, has the video.
  • David Brooks, a columnist at the Times, lavished praise on Facebook Groups in a blog post for the platform’s corporate website, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac report. The Times said that editors were not aware of the post, which instead stemmed from Brooks’s work on the Weave Project—an initiative, housed within the Aspen Institute, that has received funding from Facebook. (Brooks was not paid for the post.)
  • Bryan Curtis, of The Ringer, spoke with Catalin Tolontan, a Romanian journalist whose explosive reporting on a health scandal is the subject of Collective, a new documentary. Tolontan, curiously, works for a sports newspaper. As he sees it, “a political investigation that’s sandwiched between match reports is one that’s more likely to be read with an open mind,” Curtis writes. “In a funny way, sports suppresses the public’s passions.”
  • Last week, journalists who worked at Q, a British music magazine that was forced to shutter by the financial wreckage of the pandemic, launched The New Cue, a weekly publication hosted on Substack. Ted Kessler, the former editor of Q, told The Guardian that the new venture is an “evolution” of the final years of Q, when “we had very little to work with, so we were more imaginative”—a period that he found “creatively satisfying.”
  • And New York’s Olivia Nuzzi writes about learning of her mother’s death, from breast cancer, while covering a visit by Jill Biden, the first lady, to a cancer center in Virginia last week. “If you think about it for long enough, any story about the presidency is a story about the meaning of life and, in that sense, a story about death,” Nuzzi writes. “If you stare at it hard enough, ambition can look like running hopelessly away from mortality.”

ICYMI: The ongoing fight against racism in newsrooms

Michael Tubbs—the former mayor of Stockton, California—on racism and disinformation

February 26, 2021 - 8:29am
Last year, Michael Tubbs was the focus of an HBO documentary, Stockton on My Mind, that followed his experience trying to reinvent the Central Valley, California, city as its first Black mayor. Within a few months, however—and with his campaign for reelection coming up—Tubbs found himself subjected to a targeted disinformation effort from a fake-news […]

The ongoing fight against racism in newsrooms

February 26, 2021 - 7:13am

Yesterday, Alex Goldman—a co-host of Reply All, a popular tech podcast produced by Gimlet—popped up in the show’s feed with a brief programming announcement: “The Test Kitchen,” Reply All’s recent series about racism at the food magazine Bon Appétit, has been canceled; the show as a whole is going on hiatus; and two of its journalists—P.J. Vogt, a co-host alongside Goldman, and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, who reported the Test Kitchen series—won’t be coming back. Goldman also offered an apology. “We now understand that we should never have published this series as reported, and the fact that we did was a systemic editorial failure,” he said. “We’re very sorry for our many failings.”

These failings were not ones of shoddy fact-gathering; on the contrary, the Test Kitchen series won wide praise for its detailed, nuanced exploration of the toxic working environment at Bon Appétit under Adam Rapoport, who stepped down last summer. Rather, the failings pertained to hypocrisy. Two weeks ago, after Reply All released the second episode of its series (of an intended four), Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings, two podcast hosts who formerly worked at Gimlet, wrote on Twitter that although staffers at Bon Appétit deserved airtime for their stories, Reply All was not an appropriate messenger. Eddings wrote that he felt “gaslit” by the Test Kitchen series because Vogt and Pinnamaneni “contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet”; the pair, Eddings wrote, had “AGGRESSIVELY” opposed efforts to diversify the company, including by wielding the internal power of the Reply All team as a “cudgel” against a unionization push spearheaded by staffers of color. (Pinnamaneni had addressed her opposition to the union in the second episode of the Test Kitchen; she said that she should have made “different choices,” but added that “ideally, employees shouldn’t have to make those kinds of choices at all.”) Eddings’s tweets went viral. Vogt and Pinnamaneni publicly apologized; Nicholas Quah reported, for Vulture, that both would be leaving Reply All. (Pinnamaneni was already scheduled to move on at the end of the Test Kitchen series; Vogt was not.) Yesterday, Goldman promised that Reply All would enter a period of introspection. He also said that the first two episodes of the Test Kitchen would stay online. “We had a lot of debate about it,” he said, “but ultimately, we don’t want to bury our failure.”

New from CJR: Bridging gaps in year-round election coverage

A podcast about workplace racism causing its own reckoning with workplace racism may have been a bit meta, but it was not an outlier incident in the journalism world. Early this month, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a veteran science reporter at the New York Times, left the paper after the Daily Beast reported that he used an anti-Black slur and made other bigoted remarks while accompanying high-schoolers on a Times-led trip to Peru. His exit, and the Times’s botched handling of it, led to a debate—conducted with wildly varying degrees of good faith—about the use of the slur in various contexts; last week, Mike Pesca, a podcast host at Slate, argued in an internal discussion about McNeil that white people should be allowed to say the word in some cases, and was subsequently suspended. (According to Defector, Pesca has used the slur at work before.) In the world of TV, Meg James, of the Los Angeles Times, reported on allegations that Peter Dunn and David Friend, senior executives at CBS Television Stations, were responsible for institutionalized racist and sexist bullying at the company; both have since been suspended pending an investigation; their employees are speaking out. (James also reported on concerns about a deal Dunn brokered to buy a Long Island TV station that came with a tony golf-club membership attached.) In the world of public radio, Cerise Castle, a former producer at KCRW, in LA, spoke out this week about “blatant racism” she faced at work, “starting when I was physically prevented from entering the building multiple times within my first month of employment.” (KCRW called some of her claims “unsubstantiated.”)

In recent weeks, we’ve also seen the conclusions of longer-term reviews commissioned last summer, including a content audit at the Philadelphia Inquirer—where, last June, the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” led to a staff sickout and the resignation of the top editor. In a roundup for Poynter, Andrea Wenzel, an academic at Temple University who helped conduct the audit, wrote that the disproportionate whiteness of the Inquirer’s staff is reflected in its coverage, not only in terms of “how often communities of color were covered, but how they were covered.” This week, the Times published a report that focused less on diversity metrics and more on the culture of the newsroom; it concluded that “the Times is too often a difficult place to work for people of all backgrounds—particularly colleagues of color, and especially Black and Latino colleagues.” Black staffers in non-leadership roles were found to leave the paper more often than white colleagues; Asian-American women and other staffers of color reported feeling “unseen—to the point of being regularly called by the name of a different colleague of the same race.” The Times promised to hardwire diversity, equity, and inclusion into its HR practices.

Since the summer, quantitative and qualitative assessments of newsroom racism have run alongside each other, with frequent overlap. On the former front, major outlets—including Bon Appétit—have hired journalists of color into senior editorial positions; several created new roles focused on “diversity and inclusion.” And yet “minorities remain underrepresented at nearly every level of these companies and across departments,” as NBC’s Ahiza García-Hodges reported last week, based on data from Condé Nast, Hearst, and Vice Media. “Also, while some companies showed improvements in the hiring of employees of color, at most companies, the majority of new jobs continued to be filled by white people.”

Lately, news organizations have published packages re-evaluating, and often apologizing for, decades of racist coverage; the Kansas City Star, in one representative example, removed from its masthead the name of William Rockhill Nelson, who founded the paper and advocated racial segregation. But future-facing cultural shifts have proven harder. Last month, hundreds of public-radio staffers signed a statement, organized by Celeste Headlee, calling urgently for an “anti-racist future” for public media. “The work that faces us is painful and frustrating and profoundly uncomfortable,” they wrote. “We hope to tear down public radio in order to build it back up.” Recently, CJR’s Alexandria Neason explored the history of newsroom apologies—which long predates last summer—focusing, in particular, on the case of North Carolina’s News & Observer, whose publisher, Josephus Daniels, used the paper in 1898 to support a white-supremacist coup. “The press of today has a different relationship with white supremacy, but the modern manifestations—of language, of omission, of framing—are the offspring of Daniels’s tactics, only softened, normalized, and couched in industry norms,” Neason observed. Apologies, she wrote, are crucial to accountability, but also inadequate. “Something else is required,” she wrote. “And, certainly, something else is possible. We’re ready when you are.”

Below, more on racism and the press:

  • Diversity work: For CJR’s latest magazine, Maya Binyam explored whether media unions might be able to make newsrooms inclusive. “Nearly every union organizer I spoke with expressed some variation on the belief that their managers genuinely wanted to possess diversity,” Binyam writes. “At the bargaining table, most bosses even tout it as a common cause. But when presented with language that would bind the company to concrete obligations, these same managers fall back on noncommittal rhetoric or vacate the conversation altogether.”
  • The back story: Before news broke of Vogt and Pinnamaneni’s departures from Reply All, Eddings spoke with Justin Ray, of the LA Times, about his criticism of the Test Kitchen. Eddings said that Pinnamaneni emailed him and tried to set up a call about her opposition to the Gimlet union drive, in the context of her reporting on Bon Appétit. “It was upsetting just because it really actually brought up a lot,” Eddings said. “It’s been frankly about two years at this point since all these things went down.” He added, “Doing it in this context felt really disingenuous.”
  • Abuse: Yesterday, Seung Min Kim, a politics reporter at the Washington Post, posted on Twitter about racist abuse that she has received in response to her reporting on Neera Tanden, President Biden’s seemingly-doomed nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget. (The abuse was triggered, in particular, by a photo of Kim showing the Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski one of Tanden’s old tweets.) Steven Ginsberg, national editor at the Post, put out a statement in support of Kim. “No one should have to deal with the hate that has been directed at Seung Min,” he wrote.
  • A firing: Last week, WTTW, a TV station in Chicago, ousted Hugo Balta, its news director, after several staffers complained to management about the political views expressed in his social-media posts. In a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times, Balta, who is Latino, said that he was fired because “I don’t hide behind the handicap of objectivity as if journalists can check their humanity at the door.” Instead, he writes, “I subscribe to transparency in the pursuit of truth. By acknowledging my own biases, I surround myself with people who don’t often share the same experience, background and ideologies.”
  • A good job?: For Nieman Lab, Summer Harlow, a journalism professor at the University of Houston, summarized her recent research—with Danielle Kilgo, of the University of Minnesota—showing that journalists still tend to think that they are doing a good job covering protests for racial justice, “even though studies that I and others have done repeatedly show that mainstream media tend to delegitimize protesters and their causes.” Harlow and Kilgo surveyed reporters in Missouri, Virginia, Arizona, and Texas and matched their answers against a content analysis of nearly a thousand protest stories. (In June, Cinnamon Janzer interviewed Kilgo about protest coverage for CJR.)
  • A renaissance: Alison Bethel McKenzie, of Report for America, writes that Black-owned and -operated publications are enjoying “a renaissance,” after years of being hard hit by the financial headwinds buffeting the news industry. “Following increased attention on racial inequality in the United States and a call in Black communities for more news by and for African Americans, funders are beginning to focus their attention—and dollars—on helping support the Black press,” McKenzie writes.


Other notable stories:

  • The Biden administration will imminently release an intelligence report linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the killing, in 2018, of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi; various outlets reported that we would see the document yesterday, but still, we wait. Biden did speak yesterday with King Salman, MBS’s father. Publicly, the White House has been critical of the Saudi regime, but, per the Times, its account of yesterday’s call was “polite” and “vague,” and made no mention of the Khashoggi report.
  • CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Jessica Huseman about her work leading Votebeat, a new nonprofit newsroom that is partnering with local journalists to prioritize stories about voting rights and administration, as focus on the subject begins to ebb post-election. “For a really long time, voting has been the sort of ugly stepchild to campaign coverage,” Huseman said. “We’ve decided that it’s not important because it’s not always sexy.” (To subscribe to Harris’s weekly newsletter on the news business, click here.)
  • Tara McGowan—a Democratic operative whose strategy firm, Acronym, created a stable of “local news” sites with a partisan slant—is launching the Project for Good Information, which will pursue similar objectives without the direct backing of an overtly political group. McGowan’s allies “say she is one of the few Democrats willing to fight fire with fire,” Recode’s Theodore Schleifer writes. “But PGI wants to ‘restore social trust’ in media, and its critics argue ideological outlets only erode that even further.”
  • On Wednesday, staffers at the Southern California News Group, a chain of local papers owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, announced that they are unionizing. The same day, journalists at the Austin American-Statesman voted officially to unionize after that paper’s owner, Gannett, declined to recognize the effort voluntarily. And the National Labor Relations Board ruled that staffers at four Washington State newspapers owned by McClatchy can unionize as a single unit. Poynter’s Angela Fu has a roundup.
  • In media-jobs news, Amy Walter is leaving The Takeaway, where she hosted a weekly show focused on politics. Her final episode will be broadcast today. Elsewhere, Mehdi Hasan, who currently hosts a show on NBC’s streaming service, is getting a prime-time Sunday-night slot on MSNBC. And Sunday will be Marty Baron’s last day at the Post. Yesterday, his colleagues threw him a virtual farewell party featuring pre-taped tributes from various media luminaries—and from Liev Schreiber, who played Baron in Spotlight.
  • This week, Janet Cruz, a Democratic state senator in Florida, proposed a bill that would make it a hate crime to threaten or attack a journalist—a designation that, currently, only applies to protected characteristics such as ethnicity and sexual orientation. In a statement, Cruz cited the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol as an impetus behind the bill. Colin Wolf, of Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay, has more details.
  • For CJR, Jessica Lipsky reports on the relaunch of Wax Poetics, a hip-hop magazine that halted its regular print distribution in 2017, amid declines in ad revenue and readership. “Four years later, Wax Poetics has new owners: Alex Bruh and David Holt, British marketers and brand consultants,” Lipsky writes. Holt “has faith that WP can be financially viable again while keeping to the editorial mission of the original magazine.”
  • Barkha Dutt, a journalist in India, writes for the Post about a recent viral video that called for her to be hanged, alongside eight of her colleagues, for her reporting on farmers’ protests in the country. Trolls targeted Dutt after her work was mentioned in a protest “toolkit” that was shared online by activists including Greta Thunberg. Recently, police arrested Disha Ravi, an Indian climate activist, for “conspiring” to share the toolkit.
  • And Twitter unveiled “Super Follows,” a new feature that will allow users of the platform to charge their followers to see bonus content. Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen reports that journalists are “drooling” at the prospect—though it’s an open question, she writes, “whether newsrooms will let reporters paywall their tweets and keep the money.”

ICYMI: Facebook and the news after Australia: What happens now?

Bridging gaps in year-round election coverage

February 25, 2021 - 3:00pm
US state legislatures are largely back in session, and they’re introducing hundreds of voting bills. In the wake of the 2020 election—which introduced significant changes to allow voters more safety amid a pandemic—the number of election procedure bills is four times higher nationwide this year over last, the Brennan Center for Justice reports: 165 restrictive […]

Beloved hip-hop magazine Wax Poetics gets revived

February 25, 2021 - 8:08am
In the Nineties, during the Golden Age of hip-hop, hip-hop heads and record collectors Andre Torres and Brian DiGenti moved to New York. Not seeing coverage of the scene that excited them, they created a music magazine, one that would be for fellow—DiGenti was so obsessed with hip-hop samples that he printed the entire Rap […]

Facebook and the news after Australia: What happens now?

February 25, 2021 - 6:45am
The Australian version of Facebook got decidedly less newsy a week ago, after the company blocked Australian news outlets from posting their stories to its platform, and regular users in that country from sharing news from any media outlet anywhere in the world. (Traffic to Australian news sites fell by as much as 20 percent, […]

A critical moment for press freedom in Algeria

February 24, 2021 - 7:20am

Last March, Khaled Drareni, a prominent journalist in Algeria, was arrested. Since the start of concerted anti-government protests a year before, officials had repeatedly tried to intimidate Drareni out of covering them; on one occasion, they even tried to bribe him by offering him a plum job as head of state radio, but he stood firm. Drareni was charged with endangering national unity and security; in August, he was handed a three-year prison sentence that was later reduced to two years on appeal. Drareni founded the Casbah Tribune, an influential Algerian news site, and has also worked for French media, as a correspondent for TV5 Monde and for Reporters Without Borders. He quickly became an international symbol in the fight for press freedom: French TV anchors lobbied for his release outside the Algerian embassy in Paris; RSF stuck his face on a huge poster overlooking a highway in the city. He told me yesterday that he never expected or sought such a status. “I just wanted to fight for a free and independent press,” he said. “Informing Algerians was my only goal.”

I was able to speak with Drareni because, five days ago, he was released. A throng of activists, journalists, and well-wishers gathered outside the prison where Drareni was being held; finally, he appeared, wearing a medical mask and flashing a victorious “V” sign with his fingers. Thirty or so activists, many of whom had been locked up due to their social-media posts, were freed at the same time—part of a wave of pardons granted by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Algeria’s president, the night before. (Drareni, who wasn’t legally eligible to be pardoned, was freed under a separate mechanism.) Tebboune had only just returned to Algeria from Germany, where he received two lengthy spells of treatment after contracting COVID-19 in the fall. As he announced the pardons, Tebboune also dissolved the lower house of Algeria’s Parliament, triggering legislative elections that are expected sometime in the coming months, and set in motion a reshuffle of his government—though the justice and communications ministers, who have played key roles in the suppression of protest and press freedoms, will stay in post.

New from CJR: Journalists and the looming superstorm of climate disinformation

The announcements came days before the second anniversary of the start of the protests that came to be known as “the Hirak.” (“Hirak” means “movement.”) The demonstrations, which began in the town of Kherrata and spread across the country, channeled popular opposition to the country’s ruling class, and in particular to the decision of Abdelaziz Bouteflika—who had, at that point, been president for nearly twenty years—to seek a fifth term. (Bouteflika, who was then eighty-two, had rarely appeared in public since having a stroke in 2013; his brother was widely believed to be controlling the government in his stead.) Soon after the protests began, Bouteflika, who had already reversed his decision to run for reelection, resigned as military leaders turned on him, but true democratization did not follow, and protests continued every week. In December 2019, there was an election that Tebboune—who had close links both to the ancien régime and to the military—won. Many Algerians viewed the vote as a sham and boycotted it; officials pegged turnout at 41 percent, and called that figure “satisfactory.” Tebboune’s government continued to crack down on protesters, who continued to defy the official repression. In the end, the Hirak was suspended not by the state, but by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Throughout this period, press freedom suffered; between 2018 and 2020, Algeria, which never scored highly on Reporters Without Borders’s press-freedom index, fell ten places to 146th (out of one hundred and eighty countries and territories in total). Before they arrested Drareni, officials detained other reporters including Sofiane Merakchi, a correspondent and producer for several foreign networks who was later convicted of import and customs crimes. In September 2019, Al Araby TV was ordered off the air after covering a protest that featured anti-military placards; in the run-up to Tebboune’s election, Le Temps d’Algérie, a pro-government daily, suspended four staffers, one of whom had spoken out against the paper’s “shameful editorial line” encouraging “voting en masse.” After the pandemic hit, lawmakers passed a bill criminalizing “fake news,” the government blocked numerous independent news sites, and journalists found themselves targeted by intensifying campaigns of abuse on social media. Last summer, Moncef Aït Kaci and Ramdane Rahmouni, who worked for France 24, were detained and accused of lacking proper accreditations. In December, as speculation about Tebboune’s illness swirled within Algeria, officials blocked three more news sites, including Drareni’s Casbah Tribune.

Algeria is not an outlier within its region: as I reported recently, press freedom has, broadly, been in retreat across the Middle East and North Africa in the decade since the Arab Spring protests led—with varying degrees of brevity in different countries—to a flowering of hope. The protests in Algeria, while distinct from this broader context in many important ways, show that repression of speech is a universal tactic in the face of concerted demands for true democracy.

They also show, however, how many people are unwilling to abandon hope. In recent days, thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets again to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak; yesterday, dozens of students and activists in Algiers, the capital, defied a heavy-handed police presence to march through the city, chanting, among other things, in support of a free press and an independent judiciary. Drareni, for his part, has been spending time connecting with friends and family and thanking his supporters. He faces another milestone in his case tomorrow, when the Supreme Court will consider his appeal, but he intends to get back to work soon. Journalism “is the only job I know,” he told me, and “I’ll keep doing it until my last breath.” He hopes, in the meantime, that the circumstances of his imprisonment and release will serve to bolster press freedom. “I hope I’m the last Algerian journalist to be imprisoned,” he said.

Below, more on press freedom in Algeria and around the world:

  • Algeria: Reporters Without Borders hailed Drareni’s release; in a statement, Christophe Deloire, the group’s secretary general, said, “We are extremely happy, despite the bitter aftertaste of eleven months of injustice. Journalistic independence and pluralism are the sine qua non for positive transformation in Algeria. The pardons granted by President Tebboune are undeniably a move in the right direction after some backward steps. Khaled Drareni will be able to resume working for reliable and independent journalism.”
  • Yemen: Concern is growing as to the welfare of Adel al-Hasani, a journalist in Yemen who worked as a reporter and fixer for outlets including the BBC and CNN, and was arrested in September. Human Rights Watch said this week that the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group backed by the United Arab Emirates that is holding al-Hasani prisoner, has tortured him, including by chaining and beating him. (For more on press freedom and Yemen’s war, read Zainab Sultan’s 2019 article for CJR.)
  • Malta: Yesterday, Vince Muscat—a Maltese man who was charged with helping to carry out the murder of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, in 2017—pleaded guilty; he has been sentenced to fifteen years, rather than life, in prison in exchange for supplying information about the case. After Muscat entered his plea, police arrested three more suspects; the Times of Malta called the developments “a momentous turning point” in the investigation into the killing. (For many more details about the case, Ben Taub’s recent deep dive, for the New Yorker, is worth a read.)
  • The US, Russia, and Saudi Arabia: According to Politico’s Natasha Bertrand, the Biden administration is preparing to hit Russia with sanctions and other penalties in a bid to hold its leaders accountable both for recent hacks of US infrastructure, and for the poisoning of the opposition leader and sometime journalist Alexei Navalny. Meanwhile, Hans Nichols, of Axios, reports that Biden will today call King Salman, of Saudi Arabia, as US officials prepare to publicly release an intelligence report linking the king’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the murder, in 2018, of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Per Nichols, we can expect to see the report tomorrow.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, officials who were (or should have been) responsible for securing the Capitol on January 6 testified in the Senate; today, a House committee will convene a hearing on the role of traditional media in spreading Trump’s election lies and disinformation, with expert witnesses including the news anchor Soledad O’Brien and Emily Bell, of Tow Center and CJR fame. Ahead of time, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, two Democrats from California, wrote cable-TV providers, including Comcast and AT&T, to ask why they haven’t done more to combat misinformation on right-wing channels that they carry. In other big-lie news, ABC was criticized, on Sunday, for giving Republican Rep. Steve Scalise a platform to cast doubt on Biden’s legitimacy. The New Republic’s Alex Shephard concludes that “the Sunday shows are hopelessly broken.”
  • The Senate is also, finally, accelerating hearings for Biden’s nominees. Yesterday, Deb Haaland—who will be the first Native American cabinet member if she is confirmed as interior secretary—was among those to appear; per the AP, tribal communities held virtual parties to watch. If Haaland’s confirmation is uncertain, that of Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, seems all but dead following bipartisan criticism of her tweets. Many on the left dislike Tanden—citing, among other things, her treatment of progressive writers—but one such critic, David Klion, argues, for The Nation, that Tanden’s ill-tempered posting should not be “a barrier to public service.”
  • Yesterday, the golfer Tiger Woods was involved in a serious car crash; he has had leg surgery, but his injuries are not life-threatening. CNN’s Oliver Darcy spoke with Richard Winton, who broke key details of the story for the LA Times—“a case study,” Darcy writes, “in how plugged in local reporters are to their communities.” Winton praised local officials for their clear communication. (Others noted that they were more transparent about the crash than federal officials were about the insurrection on January 6.)
  • On Monday, a federal judge in Minnesota ruled that Linda Tirado—a freelance journalist who was blinded after police hit her with a rubber bullet while she was covering a protest last summer—may proceed with a lawsuit she filed against the city of Minneapolis and Bob Kroll, then-leader of the city’s police union. The judge wrote that injuries to Tirado and other reporters “plausibly suggest an unconstitutional custom” of police “targeting journalists for unlawful reprisals.” Josh Verges has more for the Pioneer Press.
  • Cameron Barr, a managing editor at the Washington Post, will stand in as executive editor from the end of February while bosses search for a permanent replacement for Marty Baron, who is retiring. In other media-jobs news, Rob Barrett, formerly of Hearst, is joining Maven Media, which publishes Sports Illustrated, as president of media. And NPR’s Brakkton Booker is joining Politico; he will serve as a political correspondent and also write “The Recast,” a new newsletter covering “race, power, politics and policy.”
  • Al Jazeera is launching Rightly, a digital platform aimed, per Politico, at “center-right folks who feel left out of mainstream media.” Scott Norvell, who worked for years at Fox News, will be editor in chief, and Stephen Kent, who currently hosts a podcast about “Star Wars, politics, and more,” will host an opinion show that will debut tomorrow. Per The Guardian, some Al Jazeera staffers are dismayed about the launch.
  • HuffPost staffers in Canada are unionizing with CWA Canada, a week after BuzzFeed finalized its acquisition of their parent newsroom. “We’re conscious of the fact that while our colleagues at HuffPost US, BuzzFeed Canada, and BuzzFeed US are all unionized, our newsrooms are not,” organizers said. “We’ve seen the way our colleagues’ union status has protected the conditions they fought for throughout the sale of HuffPost.”
  • And France Inter’s Morgane Tual assessed the minimalist media strategy of Daft Punk, after the duo announced its breakup. The face Daft Punk presented to the world—or didn’t, given its use of robot helmets—was always “hyper-controlled and founded on mystery,” Tual notes. With its last studio album, in 2013, Daft Punk “did the minimum, let the fans do the work, and it was a hit.”

ICYMI: How to count half a million lost lives?

Journalists and the looming superstorm of climate disinformation

February 24, 2021 - 5:55am
This article is adapted from “The Climate Beat,” the weekly newsletter of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative strengthening coverage of the climate story. The authors are Covering Climate Now’s executive and deputy directors. TEXAS HAD ONLY JUST FROZEN OVER. In the wake of a devastating winter storm, millions in the state were without power and […]

How to count half a million lost lives?

February 23, 2021 - 7:34am

Last March, amid the myriad upheavals and uncertainties that marked early pandemic life, various scientists and public-health officials started to model out how many cases and deaths we might be looking at in the long run, and the press, unsurprisingly, took great interest in their work. A team at Imperial College, in London, concluded that the coronavirus could kill upwards of two million people in the US alone should it be allowed to spread unchecked. That number spread like wildfire in headlines (usually alongside the worst-case caveat). On March 29, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, a new household name, to lay down some predictions; Fauci replied that, with mitigation, the US was likely looking at between one- and two-hundred-thousand deaths, though he also stressed that such projections aren’t especially helpful. Later the same day, then-President Trump said that if deaths were to end up in the range that Fauci cited, it would mean that “we altogether have done a very good job.” The next morning, Dr. Deborah Birx went on Today and said that that range would apply even “if we do things almost perfectly”; the day after that, she raised the upper bound to two-hundred-and-forty-thousand deaths. The projection continued to drive coverage across the media, as did a debate about its reliability. Outside experts said they had no idea how the White House had arrived at its numbers, since it hadn’t published any underlying data. The White House said it wasn’t publishing its models out of respect for the “confidentiality of the modelers.”

In the months that followed, the Trump administration did not do a very good job, and the hypotheticals hardened into grim reality. The US surpassed one-hundred-thousand confirmed deaths, in May, then two-hundred-thousand confirmed deaths, in September. News organizations responded to each milestone with visualizations that attempted to drive home the scale of the loss—a tapestry of one-line obituaries; a cover bordered with black trim. Yesterday, the five-hundred-thousandth death was confirmed, and we saw similar tributes. On its front page on Sunday, the New York Times represented each death with a dot and graphed them over time; the density of the resulting image thickened from months that resembled flocks of starlings to, more recently, weeks of almost-solid black smudge. The Washington Post simply led with the number “500,000,” calling it “almost too large to grasp.” Last night, Tapper hosted a prime-time memorial service on CNN, reprising a special that the network aired at the one-hundred-thousand mark. Around that time, I wrote that pegging memorialization to big round numbers felt inadequate and arbitrary. It still does, but at this point, so many deaths have gone unremarked that if big round numbers offer a peg for some reflection, so be it. Not that the milestones we’ve marked have actually been round—undercounting means that each has already long passed by the time official statistics catch up. That, too, is still the case.

New from CJR: They won the Alaska newspaper giveaway. Then the pandemic arrived.

When we say that deaths have gone unremarked, that’s a collective statement; each death, of course, has been felt by innumerable loved ones, colleagues, and medical caregivers. In between the yardsticks and splashy covers, news organizations at every level have tried to humanize the mounting toll by dwelling, however briefly, on the lives of individual victims, be it in obituaries, end-of-the-hour cable-news segments, or the occasional deeply-reported package. Still, it goes without saying that the press has not been able to give each lost life its due. Nor has the urgency of our coverage risen and fallen in proportion to the rise and fall of the death rate. The blackest bar on the Times’s front-page graph spans the two weeks or so before Trump left office—coinciding almost exactly with an insurrection from which the nation could not look away. Even yesterday’s milestone felt, in some respects, like just another news story. While waiting for Joe Biden to host a vigil, CNN ran a segment investigating low occupancy rates at Trump’s DC hotel; some of the prime-time shows on MSNBC led with other stories, including the ongoing fallout from the coup.

There are plenty of possible reasons for this, some better than others. The media, specifically, privileges novelty and graphic shock value over relentless, slow-moving catastrophe that we can’t easily see firsthand. As the psychologist Paul Slovic told NPR recently, all of us, as humans, are susceptible to “psychic numbing”; our emotions, he said, “aren’t good at quantitative assessment. Our feelings are energized by a single individual at risk, what we call a ‘singularity effect,’” but “the more who die, the less we care.” Singularity is easy enough to demonstrate statistically, using dots on a chart, but statistics don’t reliably move us; individual stories can, but again, the telling of individual stories during a mass-casualty event is, in some ways, a discriminatory practice—albeit a necessary one—when each life lost carries equal weight. Nor can the story of the pandemic be reduced to deaths alone. As I wrote last March, it’s an “everything story”; it has since so thoroughly restructured every aspect of our lives that it is impossible to grant it the flat somberness of tone that proportion would seem to demand. Low occupancy at Trump’s DC hotel is a pandemic story, too.

Coverage of the five-hundred-thousand mark has often sought to balance the pain with a positive that has alleviated many a pandemic story in recent weeks—the fact that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all in decline in the US. The COVID Tracking Project wrote last week that we are starting to see “solid declines in deaths correlated with COVID-19 vaccinations” among the most vulnerable population; as far as case counts go, we are still reckoning with impediments to adequate testing, not least last week’s massive winter storm, but, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote a week ago, “the share of regional daily tests that are coming back positive has declined even more than the number of cases.” The trend, he wrote, “is crystal clear.”

Even this clarity, however, can feel hard to process. On the principle that each life lost is a unique tragedy, each life saved should also carry great weight—even if news stories will logically center tragedies that happened ahead of those that were averted. It is also important to note that we are still talking, here, about shockingly high baseline numbers—the Tracking Project wrote last week, for instance, that while hospitalizations had fallen “very sharply,” they had “yet to fall far enough to reach even the peaks of the two previous surges.” Pandemics are clearly dynamic events, and covering trend lines is crucial. But we must strike an appropriate balance, here, with absolute figures. A death is a death, whether it happens on the way up or down a statistical curve.

On June 30, Fauci addressed a Senate committee and shared another projection: new daily COVID cases, he warned, could soon top one hundred thousand if Americans didn’t take measures to stop the spread. His warning made the front page of the Times, and was the top story on NBC’s and CBS’s evening newscasts; NBC called it “stark,” as did CNN, which also called it “dire.” Since then, of course, we’ve consistently seen daily case counts well beyond Fauci’s warning, and yet these actual cases have not always been covered with “stark” or “dire” urgency. The day Fauci spoke to senators in June, the US recorded more than forty-eight thousand new cases and 579 new deaths. Yesterday, there were fifty-three thousand new cases and 1,235 new deaths. These numbers all add up to our milestones, regardless of the direction we’re headed.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • A year in review: Yesterday, the Pew Research Center published a report based on a year’s worth of research into Americans’ news-consumption habits and attitudes toward the media. Among other conclusions, Pew researchers found a partisan split in views of COVID coverage. “Over time, Republicans’ responses shifted on a number of COVID-19-related issues. Generally speaking, they paid less attention to the coverage, became more critical of the media and grew more likely to say the pandemic was being exaggerated,” they write. “Conversely, Democrats’ responses on those issues—which in most cases differed from the Republicans’—remained largely unchanged over time.”
  • Filling in the picture, I: Vaccine equity remains a pressing concern—available data, Politico reports, “continues to show that people in hard-hit minority communities are getting vaccinated at a much slower pace than people in wealthier white ones.” Since the rollout began, large swathes of vaccination data have omitted race and ethnicity information, making it hard to assess the scale of the problem. The data remains limited, though “in one hopeful sign, thirty-four states are now reporting race and ethnicity data, double the seventeen from a month ago, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.”
  • Filling in the picture, II: Yesterday, the LA Times launched a Spanish-language version of its coronavirus data tracker, nearly a year after launching the English-language version. The paper said in a press release that the new initiative reflects its “commitment to increasing its Spanish-language news coverage,” as well as “the disproportionate toll the pandemic has been taking on the Latino community.”
  • Light relief: Spare a thought for editors at the Daily Campus, the student paper at the University of Connecticut, where students are presumably not one-hundred percent keen to catch COVID again.


Other notable stories:

  • Earlier today, Facebook pledged to restore access to news content in Australia “in the coming days” after the country’s government agreed to tweak the terms of a new law that would force the platform to pay news providers; as the Times reports, officials appear to have granted Facebook more time to strike its own deals with publishers “while continuing to hold the hammer of final arbitration over the company’s head.” Facebook’s news blackout, which has been in place for nearly a week, also swept up pages linked to emergency services and nonprofits, and, as Sheldon Chanel reported for The Guardian, hit hard among poorer communities in the broader Pacific region, where many cell-phone data plans offer cheap access to Facebook but not to news websites. Elsewhere, Microsoft said yesterday that it will work with publishers in Europe to lobby for Australia-style policies targeting Google and Facebook there.
  • Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s efforts to withhold his tax returns and other financial records from prosecutors in New York, who will finally now get their hands on the documents following a protracted fight. A different decision offered better news for the former president, as the Court declined to reopen an unsuccessful defamation case that Trump’s onetime lover Stormy Daniels filed against him. In other defamation news, Dominion Voting Systems, a tech company that was swept up in Trumpworld’s rampant election lies, is suing Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who amplified the lies via various media channels. The suit alleges that Lindell defamed Dominion “to sell more pillows.”
  • CJR’s Lauren Harris explores what happened after Larry Persily, the former owner of the Skagway News, in Alaska, decided to give the paper away, right before the pandemic hit last year. The new owners, Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff, relocated to Skagway from the Anchorage area, where they worked as teachers, in early March; soon after, the border between the US and Canada closed, severing the Skagway News from its printing press, and forcing Munson and Wehmhoff to pivot suddenly to digital.
  • Slate suspended Mike Pesca, who hosts its podcast The Gist, after he argued, on the company’s Slack channel, that white people should be allowed to say the n-word in some contexts. Kelsey McKinney reports, for Defector, that Pesca has made similar points—and used the word itself—at work before. Slate staffers told McKinney that they are worried about “the culture that allowed him to feel bold enough to say these things.”
  • The Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight calculated what various cities are paying out in police-misconduct settlements. “The data mostly left us with more questions than answers,” they write. “Shoddy, confusing, or incomplete record-keeping combined with a host of other local factors to make it nearly impossible for us to conclude if anything was changing in any given city—much less whether those shifts were for better or worse.”
  • For The Objective, Simon Galperin took a critical look at the Knight Foundation, a prolific nonprofit funder of journalism initiatives that, Galperin writes, has ties to “right-wing extremism.” It is hard for journalists to criticize Knight due to its influence in the industry, Galperin argues, but “its behavior—from its speaker lineups to its grant-making to its board of trustees and endowment—is actively undermining its mission and grantees.”
  • Pocket Outdoor Media, a company that owns various active-living publications and tech assets, is acquiring the parent company of Outside magazine and will rename itself after Outside; it is also acquiring Outside TV and Peloton magazine, which covers cycling, as well as two new tech investments. Sara Fischer, of Axios, reports that “the deals will add around 180 people to the company’s roughly 240-person existing employee base.”
  • The journalist Greg Donahue is out with Hardy/Friedland, an audiobook telling the story of David Hardy, a reporter who sued his employer, the New York Daily News, for racial discrimination in a landmark case while simultaneously chasing “the scoop of a lifetime,” about a New Jersey state senator who faked his own death. (In 2018, I spoke with Donahue about his fascinating reporting on the journalist and criminal Ron Porambo.)
  • And Spotify launched Renegades: Born in the USA, an eight-episode podcast series featuring conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. The company announced other podcasts that it has in the works, including Tell Them I Am, featuring stories from Muslim voices, and a project on police brutality from Ava DuVernay.

ICYMI: President Biden’s first month with the press

‘Our fates are going to be the same.’

February 23, 2021 - 5:55am
They won the Alaska newspaper giveaway. Then the pandemic arrived.

President Biden’s first month with the press

February 22, 2021 - 7:16am

In late January, at the end of her first full week as President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki went on the radio and bashed the reporters who cover the White House. “In Dana Perino’s book, she talks about having her middle finger up in the podium underneath when they’re really getting under her skin, so I’m holding that out as an option,” she said, referring to her Bush-era predecessor who is now a Fox News star. “When reporters are getting really loud, or they’re starting to ask crazy questions, I just slow down my pace and I talk very quietly, and I treat them like I’m an orderly in an insane asylum.” Fortunately, Psaki was joking. She was appearing not on a rabid right-wing talk show, but on NPR’s gentle satirical news quiz Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me; she bantered with the panelists about Biden’s favored Peloton instructor (“I really want it to be Ally Love”), her habit of answering questions by promising to circle back to you on that, and her Trump-era predecessor Sean Spicer’s turn on Dancing With the Stars, then answered trivia questions about swimming pools—a punny twist on her work with the White House press pool. “A number of people have noted that you have been very generous, professional,” Peter Sagal, the show’s host, told Psaki, referring to her first press briefings. “We’re not used to that.”

Sagal’s praise was typical of much early commentary on Psaki: that, after four years of lies, abuse, and gaslighting, it was welcome—overwhelming, almost—to have a professional person back behind the podium. In her first briefing, on inauguration day, Psaki stressed “the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room” and her “deep respect for the role of a free and independent press”; afterward, CNN’s Van Jones said, in reviewing her performance, that “there was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense, and somebody asked a question, and that person answered.” Even Spicer praised her: “She has done a very good job,” he told Politico, “and to some degree I’m a bit jealous.” As the novelty wore off, Psaki was held to at least somewhat higher standards. Observers pointed out her circling habit and political reporters griped at other perceived “non-answers” and “jargon.” There were some early controversies, but nothing earth-shaking. Psaki was asked how she would handle the presence of pro-Trump journalists (a group that Spicer, now a host at Newsmax, applied to join, before his bosses cancelled, if you will, his request); her office said they’re welcome in the briefing room, but not if they use it as a platform to spread conspiracies. She arranged for sign-language interpretation of her briefings, which was good, then used an interpreter with apparent links to far-right disinformation, which was less good. (The interpreter has not been invited back; she told the New York Post that she has been “cancelled.”) In early February, the Daily Beast reported that Psaki’s team had been asking reporters to preview their questions ahead of briefings, which “pissed off” some of them. The White House said it was merely trying to prepare better answers. Some media critics defended the practice, noting that briefings should be a place for the productive exchange of information, and not for gotcha questions; the Beast noted that Psaki had, to that point, called on every reporter at every briefing.

ICYMI: The limitations of the ‘news ecosystem’ metaphor

Then, in mid-February, came a press-shop controversy of a much higher order. It concerned T.J. Ducklo, a deputy press secretary who has, since last year, been in a romantic relationship with Alexi McCammond, a reporter who covers politics for Axios. On inauguration day—while Psaki was expressing deep respect for the press and Biden was warning his new hires that he would fire them “on the spot” if he caught them acting disrespectfully—reporters at Politico contacted Ducklo and McCammond for comment on their relationship with a view to covering it. As Vanity Fair later reported, a male Politico journalist left a message with Ducklo, who responded by calling the journalist’s female colleague Tara Palmeri and berating her down the phone, threatening to “destroy” her and accusing her of sexual jealousy. Politico eventually ran its story in early February, but not before People magazine broke the news of Ducklo and McCammond’s romance in a frothy interview feature. (“We’re both really happy, and we wanted to do it the right way.”) After Ducklo’s abusive call to Palmeri became public knowledge, Psaki announced that he would be suspended for a week—a punishment, many critics noted, that did not look like an on-the-spot firing. The next day, Ducklo resigned, following what the Washington Post described as a mutual “reassessment” with his bosses. He also apologized for his “abhorrent” language.

Outside of the press shop, the relationship between Biden’s team and the press has also had its ups and downs (albeit nothing, yet, to match the Ducklo scandal). Reporters have griped about Biden’s personal inaccessibility, especially when compared with Trump’s reliable lack of filter; so far, Biden has only submitted to one extended exchange with reporters and a handful of interviews, though he did do a high-profile Super Bowl Sunday sitdown on CBS and a CNN town hall from Milwaukee, where his answers were either long-winded or strikingly empathetic, depending on your point of view. He has preferred to leave the media terrain to his surrogates, including public-health experts. Earlier this month, the Post calculated that officials had given more than a hundred interviews to national outlets and thirty or so to local ones, reprising a tactic from Biden’s campaign; an official noted to the Post that local news is more trusted than national news, and has allowed Biden’s team to highlight the specific benefits of policies like its coronavirus stimulus package, whose broad popularity in the country has often been eclipsed by shallow Congressional “unity” chatter in DC-centric media. (There’s also a cynical theory, as the Post put it, that “local reporters are more easily dazzled by the White House,” though that theory often does not match practice.) The administration has also given access to Spanish-language and African-American media, and to specialist publications; Jill Biden, the first lady, spoke to Parents magazine, for instance. And Joe Biden has instituted a series of mini-addresses in which he speaks directly to voters—FDR-style “fireside chats” for the social-media age.

Beyond access, there are some early grounds for concern when it comes to questions of press freedom and transparency. Earlier this month, a coalition of press-freedom and civil-liberties groups called on Biden to drop the Trump-era case against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks cofounder who faces charges, under the Espionage Act, that effectively criminalize the practice of journalism. The plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears; ten days ago, Biden’s Justice Department moved to proceed with an appeal against a judge’s decision to bar Assange’s extradition from Britain, where he is currently incarcerated. Reporters Without Borders accused Biden of a “major missed opportunity.” The White House has pledged to publish its visitor logs on a quarterly basis, but it has not made an equivalent commitment around virtual meetings, which, obviously, are very common right now. And, as Philip Eil wrote for CJR last week, Biden’s early barrage of executive orders did not contain any provisions strengthening the Freedom of Information Act or other open-government laws—“an absence,” Eil argued, “that was itself revealing about transparency’s ranking on his list of priorities.”

A month is too soon to tell how Biden’s record on the deeper issues confronting the press will shape up. His topline public-relations strategy is already much clearer, both in terms of medium and messaging. Access aside, the most consistent media gripe with Biden so far has perhaps been his administration’s tendency to set low bars for itself; as the AP put it on Saturday, a pattern has emerged: “The president and his team would deliberately set expectations low—particularly on vaccinations and school reopening—then try to land a political win by beating that timetable.” Reporters should be alert to such massaging, of course, but we should be careful, too, not to punish Biden for reversing his predecessor’s terrible habit of making false promises at a time of wildly unpredictable crisis. On a visit to Michigan last week, Biden said that he “can’t give you a date when this crisis will end,” instead pleading that he is “doing everything possible to have that day come sooner rather than later.” Scrutinizing the doing is more useful than holding him to the date. Beyond Biden personally, we should continue, too, to scrutinize the conduct of officials across his administration, including in the press office. As Ducklo’s treatment of Palmeri proved, going back to normality can have a dark side.

Below, more on Biden and the press:


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The devastating Texas-storm story centers Ted Cruz