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New vaccines, same story

November 20, 2020 - 2:32pm
Pharmaceutical companies have developed two COVID-19 vaccines at an unprecedented speed. On this week’s Kicker, Sarah Zhang, a science writer for the Atlantic, and Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, discuss why Americans still debate how seriously to take the virus, and journalists can reach those who won’t listen.  CJR · New vaccines, same […]

Setting our expectations for the COVID vaccine

November 20, 2020 - 2:06pm
In January, when scientists in China released the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus, researchers around the world began the race to develop a vaccine. The press followed along: Updates on tiny, incremental advances in the clinical trial process—largely sourced from preprints (unreviewed first drafts of scientific findings) and drugmakers’ press releases—were magnified as news […]

The source of all knowledge

November 20, 2020 - 11:05am
Language Corner aims to inform and entertain, and often discusses words and phrases in the news. VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE, defending President Trump during a conference in Munich in 2019, repeatedly invoked Trump’s name “as some God-given fount of wisdom,” a New York Times columnist wrote. A Pennsylvania newspaper warned that having experience “doesn’t mean […]

The good and bad news of the HuffFeed deal

November 20, 2020 - 7:25am

Yesterday, Benjamin Mullin and Keach Hagey, of the Wall Street Journal, broke a huge media-business story: BuzzFeed is buying HuffPost in a stock deal, part of a broader package that will see Verizon Media, HuffPost’s current owner, take a minority stake and make a cash investment in BuzzFeed. The two companies will also collaborate in areas including content sharing and advertising. Online, media-watchers made variations on the same joke: HuffFeed, BuzzPost, HuffingBuzz, BuffPeed. (The tech blogger Jane Manchun Wong coded a script to exhaust all the portmanteau possibilities.) Meanwhile, staff at HuffPost were reportedly finding out about the deal the same way as the rest of us. “Reading a copy-and-pasted version of the story about my media company being acquired because I couldn’t get past the WSJ paywall,” Christopher Mathias, who covers the far right for HuffPost, tweeted. “2020 media babyyyyy.”

As Mathias also noted, news of the acquisition came two years to the day since a New York Times interview with Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO (and a founder of both BuzzFeed and HuffPost), made a splash in the media word: Peretti mused about a possible mega-merger involving a bevy of digital publishers who would, in his conception, consolidate to demand better financial terms from Facebook and Google, and namechecked Vice Media, Vox Media, Group Nine Media, and Refinery29 as examples of competitors doing “interesting work.” Since then, all those companies have been involved in acquisitions—Vice Media bought Refinery29, Group Nine bought PopSugar, and Vox Media bought New York Media, which publishes New York magazine. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, has retrenched, implementing sharp cuts both before and since the start of the pandemic. As the Journal has reported, the scale of cuts this year, including layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions, will allow BuzzFeed to break even for the first time since 2014. (Disclosure: I worked for BuzzFeed as an intern in 2017.)

New from CJR: Burkina Faso’s Invisible War

Peretti says that there will be no further layoffs at BuzzFeed as a result of the HuffPost acquisition, but he hasn’t made a similar commitment on the HuffPost side, saying only that BuzzFeed executives will wait to finalize the deal and review HuffPost’s business before making any big decisions. Media acquisitions typically involve layoffs (often dressed up in the soulless language of “synergies”), and as Alexandra Steigrad recently reported for the New York Post, industry insiders expected that a (then-hypothetical) HuffPost sale would likely involve heavy staff cuts given the outlet’s falling revenue and high operating costs. Yesterday, sources with knowledge of the deal told Edmund Lee and Tiffany Hsu, of the Times, that Verizon is giving BuzzFeed cash, in part, to help pay severance packages. For now, we know that the BuzzFeed and HuffPost newsrooms will continue to operate independently of each other (no portmanteaux here, then), though Mark Schoofs, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, told staff in a memo that there will be room for collaboration, and HuffPost’s editor in chief (a position that has been vacant since Lydia Polgreen departed for Gimlet Media earlier this year) will report to Schoofs, albeit in an “oversight” rather than a “management” capacity. We also know that HuffPost’s union has “successor language” in its contract, meaning that the union will survive the takeover.

After news of the deal broke yesterday, media-watchers began to chew over what it might mean in a broader sense, beyond newsroom dynamics. Sara Fischer, of Axios, wrote that BuzzFeed will get “scale for cheap” out of the deal, whereas HuffPost will get “a lifeline”; Bijan Stephen, of The Verge, noted that Verizon Media taking a minority stake in BuzzFeed is a “little funny” given reports that the company has been trying to get out of the digital-media business, not further entangle itself. My CJR colleague Mathew Ingram speculated that the minority stake could eventually help pave an “exit route” for BuzzFeed; Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton tweeted that the acquisition is not good news for AOL and Yahoo, other Verizon Media properties. The deal will likely mean integration around commerce opportunities: Verizon Media has sought to expand in this area, both through affiliate links (which drive sales to third-party retailers) and the production of original content, while BuzzFeed has expanded its affiliate business, too, including in partnership with an adult-entertainment company that, as of last week, makes a BuzzFeed-branded sex toy. (Yesterday, Peter Kafka, of Recode, asked Peretti whether we can soon expect to see a HuffPost-branded sex toy, too. “We don’t own HuffPost yet, so we’ve got to wait to have those important conversations,” Peretti replied.)

Consolidation has become so common in the media industry that the sadness of the trend—good outlets being forced into defensive maneuvers by a terrible business climate—can sometimes feel secondary to its sense of inevitability. “BuzzFeed and HuffPost, for all their issues, represented prototypes of good faith digital news operations,” Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, tweeted yesterday. “As they consolidate, and possibly shrink a little, consider the political money currently growing bottom-feeding wildly misleading networks of local and national news.”

Management at BuzzFeed is projecting positivity about the deal: Schoofs characterized it as “hopeful and exciting news” that constitutes a vote of confidence in BuzzFeed’s business model; Peretti told Kafka that, having spoken to staff, “there’s a general feeling of excitement from everyone so far.” Management, of course, would say that. But, within the constraints of the current digital-media landscape, there is a path forward here that would warrant such positivity; if the retention of editorial staff can be prioritized and the deal helps generate revenue that can be reinvested in journalism, then the readers of two outlets that do much great work and employ many talented, straight-shooting reporters stand to benefit. As one such reporter, Mathias, put it on Twitter yesterday, “what if this… is actually good media news and not bad media news?”

Below, more on the media business:

  • The Boston Globe: Linda Henry—who, along with her husband, John W. Henry, owns the parent company of the Boston Globehas taken over as its CEO, having previously served as managing director. (The company also owns and Stat, which covers health and medicine.) Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, writes for WGBH that the appointment signals that the Henrys are committed to the paper for the long term, and also means that there will no longer be a middleman between the Globe and its owners. The paper’s union is currently embroiled in tense, protracted contract talks with management; this week, union members criticized the Henrys for the paper’s use of Jones Day, a law firm that has represented Trump in his election legal fight. (ICYMI, CJR’s Andrew McCormick profiled Jones Day last year.)
  • The Ringer: For the Times, Noam Scheiber reports on tensions at The Ringer, the Spotify-owned sports-media company where a push to bring on celebrity contributors has rankled union members, who fear they are being sidelined by non-unionized contract workers. Management at The Ringer moved to recognize the union but have yet to agree a contract with it, and some staffers have said that Bill Simmons, The Ringer’s founder, unfollowed them on Twitter after they expressed support for the union—a damaging move, the staffers said, since “Simmons’s Twitter account, with its millions of followers, was a significant source of web traffic.”
  • Lenfest: For CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project newsletter, Lauren Harris reports from a virtual summit convened by the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, dedicated to reimagining journalism in Philadelphia. (You can subscribe to Harris’s newsletter here.)
  • CJR: For our new magazine on a transitional moment for journalism, Darryl Holliday, who leads the news lab at City Bureau in Chicago, outlines what journalism can learn from mutual aid. “As I witnessed the collective efforts taking shape around me this summer, I considered, not for the first time, the role that journalists occupy in a community—and our failure to address the fundamental human needs within it,” Holliday writes. “I wondered: What is the mutual aid equivalent for local news?”

Other notable stories:

From the magazine: Tax Dollars at Work

Journalists are not the only storytellers

November 19, 2020 - 8:57am
Since Tuesday, the Lenfest Institute has been hosting an online summit dedicated to reimagining journalism in Philadelphia (the event continues today). Yesterday morning, ¡Presente! Media—a Philadelphia-based bilingual media collective—presented a documentary about three Philly locals, highlighting the ways in which media can either limit or support the roles that people play in their communities.  Alma […]

Congress and the platforms: The circus is back in town

November 19, 2020 - 6:45am
While the president continues to rant about conspiracies he believes denied him the election, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to hold yet another hearing into the alleged misbehavior of Facebook and Twitter. This comes less than a month after the Senate Commerce Committee held a very similar hearing into the two social platforms, which consisted […]

Should we ‘publish less’ on the pandemic?

November 18, 2020 - 7:33am

Yesterday, Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer, of Axios, shared some troubling data from NewsWhip, a social-media analytics firm. “New coronavirus cases in the US have never been higher,” they wrote in summary, but “online interest in the pandemic has never been lower.” In the last two weeks, news stories about covid-19 saw their lowest level of engagement on social media (likes, shares, and so forth) since early March, when interest in the pandemic was on an upward trajectory. That’s not because there’s less covid journalism to engage with: the number of stories appearing now is comparable to the summer months, Rothschild and Fischer report, and cable-news mentions of the pandemic have persisted at a high level. (Surprise! Trump’s claim that mainstream outlets would stop covering “covid, covid, covid… covid, covid, covid” once the election was over was wrong.) Rather, they conclude, “lower interest—not less media coverage—is responsible for the lower engagement.”

Engagement, of course, is not the only way of measuring news consumption and interest, both of which elude easy quantification. Still, as the pandemic has progressed, other data points have driven at a similar conclusion. In March, news sites benefited from a pronounced covid traffic bump, but it quickly dissipated. As spring turned to summer turned to fall, other big stories—the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests; the election—frequently overtook the pandemic in terms of interest and media attention. According to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of respondents who said they were following covid news “very closely” declined from nearly sixty percent in March to thirty-five percent in September, with the latter figure further declining to twenty-six percent among people who support or lean toward supporting the Republican Party—a partisan attention gap that has widened considerably over time. Overall, more people—and many more Republicans than Democrats—think the pandemic has been overhyped than think it has been minimized or treated with an appropriate level of attention.The US isn’t alone here: research published over the summer by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found a sharp rise in “news avoidance” in the UK, with most avoiders saying that covid news put them in a bad mood.

From the magazine: For Pueblo

More immediately, the NewsWhip data chimes with a broader sentiment that has been much covered recently: covid fatigue. Clearly, our collective engagement—in the broader, non-social-media-specific sense of the term—with the pandemic story has not risen and fallen with the severity of the scientific facts on the ground; rather, it has responded to a complex mix of social, political, and, simply put, very human factors. As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote in April, addressing the decline of the initial covid traffic bump, “Sustained attention is hard to maintain over time, no matter how objectively important a topic might be. The lives of nearly every American (and, of course, billions elsewhere) are now starkly different than they were a couple months ago—but their interest in news has rapidly regressed toward the mean.” While coverage has continued at a high level—and some of it has been excellent—much of it has become routine, settling into familiar, circular grooves. Of course, living and working in the permanent state of high-pitched, anguished fury and grief that the facts here demand is hardly sustainable. The covid story is many things at once: persistently tragic, but also deeply uncertain and, sometimes, boring, all of which complicates the production of journalism. We shouldn’t be in the business of sugar-coating and false hope, nor of contriving excitement.

The pandemic is an inherently difficult story to cover, let alone while we all, as journalists, deal with varying levels of exhaustion and health risk, as well as layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, and the rest. There are, though, things we could do differently, and in recent weeks, media-watchers have spelled some of them out. Yesterday, for example, Rothschild and Fischer quoted from a recent episode of Peter Kafka’s Recode Media podcast that featured an interview with Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist and breakout authority on the pandemic. Tufekci referred to coverage that she said drove her “up the wall,” including alarmist headlines about the death of a participant in a vaccine trial (the person in question was in a control group, and even if they hadn’t been, alarm need not have followed) and teachers who caught covid. The problem, Tufekci argued, is that news organizations are “overproducing the article of the day” and parroting the words of experts and politicians, rather than working out how they can synthesize and add value. “Everyone is publishing more. And I’m kinda like, publish less,” she said. “People are publishing readable stuff and oversimplifying.” Sometimes outlets end up contradicting each other and themselves. “We end up in an environment where people don’t really trust the media as much, because this one said this and this one said that,” Tufekci said.

There are many reasons for media mistrust, of course, and they aren’t uniformly journalists’ fault. Tufekci, though, makes a good point about the risks of overproduction and oversimplification. Vaccine coverage is a good example of the point: as The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang wrote recently, vaccine trials usually proceed outside of the glare of immediate public scrutiny, but this year, interest in the process is so intense that every minor development makes news, a situation that can make it hard to know which are important and which aren’t. The recent announcements, by Pfizer and Moderna, that their vaccine candidates appear to be highly effective are undoubtedly important, but their results were preliminary and published via press release, and not in a peer-reviewed journal—caveats that were present in much coverage but often emphasized much less strongly than the topline impression of “good news.”

Science proceeds slowly, but the news cycle does not. When important things are happening in the world—from the vaccine developments to the latest surge in confirmed cases and the overwhelming of many hospitals—our instinct is to cover them, because that’s what journalists do; when coverage of a crucial topic—climate change, for instance—is not adequately forthcoming or prominent, media critics like me are wont to complain, often in quantitative terms. None of this is wrong, and the covid story is so huge and all-encompassing that it can be told from near-infinite angles. Each death, each livelihood destroyed, tells a story. Yet the proposition that less, sometimes, can be more also contains merit, and needn’t contradict the prior point. Herding less instinctively around “the article of the day,” as Tufekci puts it, and being more patient with the intrinsic messiness of the scientific process could open up attention and resources to redirect elsewhere, and could even freshen up the general tenor of covid coverage. Whether or not that will re-engage lost public attention is harder to say. On that score, there are no easy answers.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • The costs of paying attention: According to Claudia Wallis, of Scientific American, recent studies have shown that the pandemic’s toll on mental health has been even worse than experts expected, especially among young adults. Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, found that “increased engagement with media coverage of the outbreak” is a major driver of anxiety among people of all ages. “If people are engaged with a great deal of media, they are more likely to exhibit and report distress, but that distress seems to draw them further into the media,” Silver says. “It’s a cyclical pattern from which it is difficult to extricate oneself.”
  • Long covid: In a Twitter thread, Mara Gay, a member of the New York Times editorial board, thanked journalists for paying attention to “long COVID,” or the persistence of health problems among people (including Gay) who contracted the disease, but also offered her perspective on how coverage could be improved. “Stories that mention in passing that some of us may be permanently disabled (or not), or have a chronic condition (or not), without taking the time to lay out what that may or may not mean aren’t helpful or actionable, only terrifying,” Gay wrote. “covid survivors are healing slowly, but we are still healing. They need more focus on what is working, where to get help, and where to find support.”
  • The danger of small events: Public-health officials across the country have said that small social gatherings—such as dinner parties and sleepovers—appear to have emerged as a significant driver of the recent surge in confirmed cases. As Karin Brulliard wrote recently for the Washington Post, this marks a change: for months, “the danger of large events has been a focus of state and local restrictions and of media coverage.”
  • The industry damage: The Davis County Clipper, a local weekly newspaper in Bountiful, Utah, will cease publication next month after nearly one hundred and thirty years in business. In a statement, R. Gail Stahle, the paper’s publisher, said that the pandemic has exacerbated its longer-term financial struggles, and that “the operating model for the Clipper is just no longer viable.” The Deseret News has more. (As ever, to stay up to date on the impact the pandemic has had on the news business, subscribe to Lauren Harris’s “Journalism Crisis Project” newsletter, a production of CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.)

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s new magazine on a transitional moment for journalism, Mary Retta explores “commentary YouTube,” where videos are grounded in cultural and political analysis. “Individuals with large followings and the time to devote to research are seizing the opportunity to challenge the dominance of mainstream outlets,” Retta writes. These creators and their audiences are “a young crowd… typically no older than thirty.” Also for the magazine, Abe Streep profiles John Rodriguez, the publisher of the Pueblo Pulp, a monthly in Colorado, who tried to get public funding to keep his paper afloat. “This isn’t just about news,” he told local officials. “Local media also drives the local economy.”
  • In Washington, Pentagon officials announced that the US will halve its number of troops in Afghanistan before Inauguration Day; the officials refused to take questions, drawing the ire of reporters. Mark Esper, Trump’s former defense secretary who opposed such a drawdown, was recently fired by tweet; yesterday, the same fate befell Christopher Krebs, a Homeland Security official responsible for election cybersecurity who publicly disputed Trump’s election lies. As Trump’s challenges to the result founder, he shuffled his legal team again, including by tapping Marc Scaringi—a Pennsylvania lawyer and talk-radio host who recently said, on his show, that Trump’s litigation “will not work.”
  • Elsewhere in Washington, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, the respective CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, testified virtually before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As is typical, Republican gripes about content moderation dominated—but as Makena Kelly writes, for The Verge, “with the pressure valve of the election fully released, the hearing struck an unusually libertarian tone, suggesting some Republicans may be cooling on the idea of heavy-handed tech regulation.” Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey addressed how their platforms will approach Trump’s accounts once he leaves office, with Dorsey stressing that Trump will no longer qualify for the special latitude afforded world leaders.
  • Jeremy W. Peters, of the Times, profiles Real Clear Politics, a site for politics nerds that has made a “sharp right turn” in the Trump era. Since Trump took office, “donations to its affiliated nonprofit have soared,” and “large quantities of those funds came through two entities that wealthy conservatives use to give money without revealing their identities.” Real Clear has also developed business ties with The Federalist, a hard-right site.
  • Poynter’s Amaris Castillo spoke with reporters in Georgia, who are pivoting from the state’s presidential race to cover runoffs that will determine control of the US Senate, all amid huge national interest. “Everyone wanting to know what’s happening in Georgia was overwhelming, but in a good way,” Stephen Fowler, of Georgia Public Broadcasting, says. “Too often I feel like there’s a focus on Georgia and the South in a reductive way.”
  • In media-business news, cryptocurrency reporters from outlets including CoinDesk and Forbes have formed the Association of Cryptocurrency Journalists and Researchers, a member-based group. Elsewhere, Marker, a Medium publication, launched The Mobilist, a blog, written by Steve LeVine, focused on “the future of batteries, electric cars, and driverless vehicles.” And Business Insider is staffing up for a new bureau in Singapore.
  • In France, lawmakers began debating a new security bill that would, among other provisions, make it a crime to publish images of police officers’ faces with the intent of undermining their “physical and psychological integrity.” Press-freedom and human-rights advocates protested against the bill, which they fear will be used to gag journalists and protect law enforcement from legitimate scrutiny. France 24 has more.
  • Also in France, Radio France Internationale accidentally published pre-written obituaries for around a hundred celebrities, including the Queen and Clint Eastwood, who aren’t dead yet. RFI blamed migration to a new CMS for the error; Abdoulaye Wade, a former president of Senegal, saw the funny side, noting that “not everybody gets the chance to take note of one’s obituary while still alive.” Aurelien Breeden has more for the Times.
  • And Twitter launched “fleets”—a Snapchat-like feature allowing users to post messages that disappear after a day. When Twitter unveiled the idea, back in March, Nieman Lab’s Benton wrote that fleets might make journalists’ feeds cleaner while damaging journalism as a whole: “The most news-friendly social media platform,” he wrote, has taken a step toward ephemeral content that “the news isn’t that great at producing.”

From the magazine: The Influencer Commentariat

Barack Obama’s complicated media-criticism tour

November 17, 2020 - 7:29am

As you may have noticed, Barack Obama has a book out today. It’s a memoir, titled A Promised Land, that runs to more than seven-hundred pages and is still only a first volume—covering the period from Obama’s childhood to the raid, in 2011, that killed Osama bin Laden. Originally, Obama planned to write a shorter, single volume, but he ended up grappling with a surfeit of good material and with a desire to offer both rich historical detail and a compelling narrative; as he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “there are parts of the book where I just had a really nice description I wanted to leave in and the editor was like, ‘Do we really need this, like, do we really?’ and I said, ‘Eh, I like it, sorry. That’s just a pretty description and I want to leave it.’” Online, every writer related and every editor winced. “Kill your darlings,” Seyward Darby, the editor in chief of the Atavist Magazine, advised. “It’s liberating, I promise.”

Ahead of publication day, the former president embarked on a media tour, coverage of which has, implicitly and often explicitly, provided a marked contrast with the behavior of the soon-to-be-former president. Interviewers have asked Obama to weigh in on Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and the state of the country generally; in his answers, Obama has emphasized the centrality of America’s polarized information ecosystem in putting Trump in the White House and bolstering his unhinged claim that he gets to stay there. As Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, put it, “In every interview, Obama is talking about media.”

From the magazine: An industry in flux

When Gayle King, of CBS News, asked Obama what he thought Trump’s strong election performance said about America, he replied, “The power of that alternative worldview that’s presented in the media that those voters consume, it carries a lot of weight.” He elaborated to Michel Martin, of NPR: “If you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read the New York Times, and that didn’t use to be as stark because you had local newspapers and you had people overlapping in terms of where they got information”; when you see social-media “rabbit holes that people are following, the denial of facts, the belief in wild conspiracy theories like QAnon getting real traction,” he added, “each of us have some responsibilities to start thinking carefully about not being so gullible and just accepting whatever it is that we’re seeing pop up on our phones.” Speaking with David Olusoga, of the BBC, Obama called for supply-side fixes, too: “a combination of regulation and standards within industries to get us back to the point where we at least recognise a common set of facts before we start arguing about what we should do about those facts.” And he told Goldberg that “we don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough.”

While Obama’s emphasis here has mostly been on right-wing media and the structures that allow it to flourish, he hasn’t spared mainstream media. He told Martin, of NPR, that he decided to close his book with the bin Laden raid not as a note of unalloyed triumph, but to contrast what he calls “the serious work of government” with a news cycle that was—at the same moment and across “every major media outlet”—saturated with coverage of Trump’s birther lies. “Some of the same people who later on would sort of decry Donald Trump and his very flimsy attachment to the truth were the same people who gave Donald Trump a big platform during this period,” Obama said. Indeed, according to Michael Kranish, of the Washington Post, Obama’s “grievances with the media are a constant theme” of the book, which takes aim, in part, at liberal pundits who Obama feels did not understand the need for compromise. “This is what separates even the most liberal writers from their conservative counterparts,” he writes (apparently of a HuffPost article that quoted him correctly): “the willingness to flay politicians on their own side.”

Even if one accepts the broad truth of this assertion, it doesn’t follow that this is a bad thing: a willingness to criticize your own side looks, to me, like a crucial guardrail against the toxic information environment that Obama accurately describes. In general, his media criticism certainly merits a hearing. But it must also be weighed against his actual record on journalistic matters—a record that, as CJR chronicled, is hardly glowing. Obama pledged to run the most transparent administration in history, but then oversaw highly-secretive policies around drone strikes, mass surveillance, and more; his officials also prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than any prior administration, and subpoenaed the journalist Jim Risen (the Justice Department eventually dropped the subpoena, but not before it had persuaded an appeals court to gut reporters’ privileges vis-à-vis their sources) and the phone records of reporters at the Associated Press. (As Ramya Krishnan and Trevor Timm reported last year in CJR, officials considered subpoenaing records from the Times, the Post, and ABC at the same time, but ultimately decided against doing so.) Obama did not, as president, meaningfully crack down on the Big Tech firms whose platforms he now perceives as a danger to democracy; on the whole, his administration was friendly toward them. Nor (despite the urgings of Dan Rather) did his administration prioritize structural support for the news business—a victim of the financial crash that did not, unlike the auto or banking industries, get a big bailout.

We must recognize, too, that Obama’s diagnosis of our warped information climate—while accurate in many urgent respects—does not come from a dispassionate or post-ideological place. Another excerpt from his Atlantic interview is telling in this regard. Addressing the erosion of a shared factual reality, he told Goldberg that, in the past, “part of the common narrative was a function of the three major networks and a handful of papers that were disproportionately influential. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You’re not going to eliminate the internet; you’re not going to eliminate the thousand stations on the air with niche viewerships designed for every political preference. Without this it becomes very difficult for us to tackle big things.”

The internet-age proliferation and splintering that Obama describes here has indeed helped entrench partisanship. It has also, however, led to an efflorescence of voices and perspectives that simply weren’t heard in the era of three networks and a handful of papers, and that have expanded the national conversation, not least as it pertains to big policy stuff. Weakening the grip of establishment gatekeepers has had costs, but it has also had clear benefits. To be useful, the present debate about the state of the media industry must address both—tackling the creation of “different realities,” but also diversifying and expanding our understanding of actual reality. The notion of a “common narrative” channels an ideology of consensus that often elides who gets to do the narrative building. Walter Cronkite nostalgia can only carry us so far.

Below, more on Obama and the election:

  • The launch: As CNN’s Stelter reports, Obama’s media tour isn’t confined to outlets in the US. In addition to his BBC interview, Obama will also be speaking with the Bertelsmann Media Network and ZDF, in Germany; the Globo Network, in Brazil; Nieuwsuur, in the Netherlands; and France 2. According to the Times, Crown, which is publishing the book, is printing 3.4 million copies for the North American market and a further 2.5 million to be distributed internationally, and demand may still outstrip supply. Many booksellers, who have struggled amid the pandemic, see the memoir as a possible lifeline for their businesses. (Obama has also compiled a playlist to go with the book. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Sinatra, and Springsteen all feature.)
  • Losing the war: Joe Biden may have won the election, but—as Lachlan Markay, Hanna Trudo, and Sam Stein report for the Daily Beast—Democratic operatives agree that the party is losing the war online, particularly when it comes to “building the type of news and organic content ecosystem that can match the scale that currently exists on the right.” Some operatives favor fighting fire with fire, but others “think the onus right now has to be on counteracting and limiting the reach of the false and misleading information spreading on social media networks.”
  • Winning the war?: Tommy Vietor, a former Obama staffer and current host of the liberal podcast Pod Save America, writes, for Crooked Media, that the incoming Biden administration should not repeat the Obama administration’s “mistake” of feeling pressured to treat Fox News as a “legitimate news organization.” Instead, Vietor argues, Biden’s team should “call Fox what it is: an extension of the Republican Party” and simultaneously “develop closer ties with progressive outlets like The Nation, the Young Turks, and yes, Crooked Media. Give them scoops and access and grow their audiences and influence the way Trump’s team has nurtured fringe rags like Newsmax and OAN.”
  • The transition: Michelle Obama is back in the news, too. Yesterday, she slammed Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, on Instagram for refusing to concede defeat. “Donald Trump had spread racist lies about my husband that had put my family in danger,” Michelle Obama wrote, of her own decision to welcome Melania Trump to the White House in 2016. “That wasn’t something I was ready to forgive. But I knew that, for the sake of our country, I had to find the strength and maturity to put my anger aside.”

Other notable stories: 

  • In an editor’s note for CJR’s new magazine on this transitional moment for journalism, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, makes the case that the media industry “needs to be rebuilt and reconceived.” Also for the magazine, Leah Sottile profiles the “first responder” journalists who covered this summer’s protests in Portland, Oregon. “Those consistently putting themselves in danger to provide the best accounts of the scene were, by and large, the same people whose identity made them most vulnerable to violence at the hands of the state and society,” Sottile writes; people “who, because of their age, race, education, or identity, tended to face barriers to jobs at legacy media outlets.”
  • Yesterday, the drug-maker Moderna claimed, based on an early analysis of trial data, that the COVID-19 vaccine it has been developing is nearly ninety-five-percent effective. The news came one week after the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German drugmaker BioNTech announced similarly positive early data—although, as STAT reports, it’s not yet clear how long immunity from the two vaccines will last, and both Pfizer and Moderna disclosed their findings via press release, and not in a peer-reviewed medical journal. (ICYMI, I explored coverage of the Pfizer vaccine in this newsletter last week.)
  • On Sunday, Patricia Escárcega, a food critic at the LA Times, wrote on Twitter that the paper pays her significantly less than it pays Bill Addison, her white male co-critic, and that bosses rejected a discrimination complaint filed through her union. The LA Times told LA Magazine that Escárcega’s pay is “well above the scale for her job classification and experience,” and that Addison earns more because he has “significantly more experience” and “has won one of the most significant awards in food journalism.”
  • In media-jobs news, Caitlin Dickerson, who covers immigration for the New York Times, is moving to cover the same beat at The Atlantic. Elsewhere, Axios appointed Russell Contreras, who previously covered race and ethnicity for the AP, as its justice and race reporter. And James Hohmann, who writes the Washington Post’s flagship politics newsletter, The Daily 202, will migrate to the paper’s opinion section as a columnist.
  • Corey Hutchins, of the Colorado Independent, profiles the News Station, a digital outlet founded by Peter Marcus, a former reporter who now works as the comms director for a cannabis company. Under its managing editor, Matt Laslo, the site, which now operates independently of the cannabis company, covers drug policy among other topics, and is working to publish writers who are incarcerated or experiencing homelessness.
  • In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a publicly-funded watchdog, said that it found no evidence of illegal gender-based pay discrimination at the BBC. A group representing women working at the broadcaster criticized the inquiry, noting that the EHRC reviewed just ten pay complaints out of a thousand filed. Carrie Gracie, a former staffer who was given back pay by the BBC, called the inquiry “a whitewash.”
  • Maia Sandu, a pro-European liberal, has been elected as the first female president of Moldova, unseating the incumbent, Igor Dodon, who closely aligned himself with Vladimir Putin and Russia. During the campaign, Sandu said that she was targeted by a Russian disinformation campaign, and told Anna Nemtsova, of the Daily Beast, that Dodon weaponized a “bombardment of fake news” against her candidacy.
  • And Quartz claims to have had its “best week ever for membership” after Zach Seward, the site’s co-founder and CEO, announced plans to buy it from Uzabase, its Japanese owner, and turn it into an independent media company. Quartz says that it added nearly 1,200 new members last week, and now has more than twenty-five-thousand in total.

From the magazine: The First Responders

This annus horribilis, and what comes next

November 16, 2020 - 7:28am

Last week, I took some time off in an attempt to shake off my frazzled post-election state. While I was washing dishes one day, I caught up on a recent episode of the tech podcast Reply All. (I banned myself from consuming breaking news while I was off.) In the episode, Alex Goldman, one of the show’s hosts, explored the “Hedonometer”—a tool, designed by data scientists at the University of Vermont, that, for the last twelve years, has aimed to quantify collective happiness by running tweets through a linguistic analysis. (“Laughter” is a happy word whereas “suicide” is not; the online meaning of some words, such as “thirsty,” has changed over time.) 

My initial reaction was to have some questions about the Hedonometer. (What about tweets not in English? What about the many people who, quite sensibly, don’t use Twitter, and what about the ways in which Twitter changes its users’ behavior? How can you know what a word connotes without understanding the full richness of its context?) Once Goldman started discussing the tool’s findings for 2020, however, they hit me like a punch to the stomach. On March 12, as the crisis caused by COVID-19 really started to bite in the US and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the Hedonometer recorded its saddest-ever day, and it did so again on May 31, amid the mass protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis. “We keep setting these records, right?” Peter Dodds, a researcher behind the Hedonometer, told Goldman. He namechecked past awful days online: the Boston Marathon bombing, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas shooting. “That was so extreme,” Dodds said. “But then we get to COVID-19 and George Floyd—finding new depths, essentially, for this kind of collective-wellbeing measure. You know, this is a traumatized population.”

New from CJR: The Substackerati

Suddenly—standing in my kitchen rinsing suds out of a tea-stained mug on what should have been a vacation day—the full awfulness of 2020 properly, emotionally hit me for the first time. I can’t really explain why it took Reply All, of all things, to trigger that. I have undoubtedly—as a white person with a stable job and a pool of family and friends who have, for the most part, escaped the ravages of COVID—been shielded from the worst of this year. But I have still been in a position to experience at least some small measure of its awfulness—both personally (I am confident, though not certain, that I had a bruising case of COVID earlier in the year, and I spent the summer grappling with lingering symptoms that at least closely resembled those associated with the phenomenon known as “long COVID”) and professionally, in the sense that, as the writer of this daily newsletter, I’ve had to inhale an unrelenting firehose of grim news and process it into something resembling coherent, proportionate analysis. 

I’ve written before about the disorienting difficulty of processing the present news cycle, and the collective grief that lurks beneath—and sometimes breaks—the surface of so much coverage. I haven’t, I hope, been oblivious to any of it. So why the sudden emotional reaction now? My best guess—consistent with my past states of mind and inescapable identity as a British person—is that 2020 finally punched through some subconscious repression mechanism that I had previously dared broach only intellectually. Before, amid my exhaustion and sporadic gasping for breath, it was perhaps all I could do to carry on and keep processing information.

Of course, I’m not exceptional in this regard—far from it. Recently, Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the International Center for Journalists surveyed 1,406 English-speaking media workers from 125 countries about their experiences of the pandemic, and found that a clear majority of them were struggling with its “psychological and emotional impacts”: forty-one percent of respondents said they were experiencing increased anxiety, thirty-eight percent exhaustion and burnout, thirty-five percent difficulty sleeping, thirty-four percent a sense of helplessness, and thirty-three percent dark and negative thoughts. (Julie Posetti, Emily Bell, and Peter Brown summarized the findings for CJR; the results of similar surveys conducted in other languages are forthcoming.) As Marta Martinez reported recently for OneZero, many social-media managers, who have found themselves on the frontlines of responding to the news cycle and its attendant online conversation, are at breaking point; student journalists, too, have struggled with their mental health as they try to balance academic work with their responsibility to cover COVID on campus, which often falls to them alone given the hollowing out, in many places, of professionalized local news. As Poynter’s Doris Truong wrote recently, journalists of color, in particular, have experienced a “trying year” of unremunerated “emotional labor,” and have led the way in demanding a representational and philosophical reckoning at the highest levels of newsrooms. Reporters and other staff across the industry have been furloughed or laid off or seen their pay cut, or all three at different moments. 

Today, CJR is beginning the rollout of a new magazine, “What Now? The press is forced to reimagine itself,” that grapples with the multifaceted fallout from this terrible year for journalists and journalism, and maps out what might come next. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be publishing new features and columns exploring this moment of transition, including Maya Binyam on media unions’ push to diversify newsrooms; Ruth Margalit on the shift from the shared office to remote working, and the impact that has had; and Jack Herrera, Abe Streep, Darryl Holliday, and others on future paths for the industry, from public funding for news to the efforts to root journalism in the communities that it serves. (These and other stories will roll out on, and I’ll be linking to them in this newsletter as and when they get published.) As Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, writes in a forthcoming editor’s note for the magazine, this moment is an opportunity as well as a crisis. Our industry needs to be “rebuilt and reconceived,” from its financial foundations to the basic ways in which we tell stories and decide who gets to tell them.

We hope that the magazine will help our readers—journalists and non-journalists alike—think through what it means to work in and consume news right now. The work of journalism has rarely been more important or more difficult, and for all the many flaws of this industry and those who populate it, we deserve to be able to approach our craft from a stable, equitable footing, and not tenuously, while trying desperately not to fall through all the cracks. We can’t control the news the world throws at us, nor the swings of the Hedonometer. But we can do a better job of controlling how prepared we all are—intellectually and emotionally—to make sense of it at all. For now, for me, there’s Reply All.

Below, more on 2020 and the magazine:

  • From the magazine: This morning, we published the first feature from the magazine. Clio Chang explores whether Substack, the newsletter platform that has recently attracted numerous big-name journalists (most recently: Matthew Yglesias, formerly of Vox), is helping to create a more equitable media industry or merely reproducing old flaws. “Writing is often considered an individualistic enterprise, but journalism is a collective endeavor,” Chang writes. “And that is the paradox of Substack: it’s a way out of a newsroom—and the racism or harassment or vulture-venture capitalism one encountered there—but it’s all the way out, on one’s own.” 
  • Will the next decade be even worse?: Graeme Wood, of The Atlantic, profiles Peter Turchin, an academic at the University of Connecticut at Storrs who “believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.” Based on models analyzing the last ten-thousand years of human history, Turchin has long predicted a coming “‘age of discord,’ civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced,” Wood writes. “In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.”
  • COVID, I: The US is in the middle of a terrible COVID-19 surge, with confirmed daily case counts now routinely topping one hundred thousand, and hospitals in many areas overwhelmed, as The Atlantic’s Ed Yong wrote last week. Over the weekend, Jodi Doering, an ER nurse in South Dakota, posted a Twitter thread that went viral in which she related her experience with patients who insist that COVID isn’t real. “These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them,” Doering writes. “And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It’s like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There’s no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again.”
  • COVID, II: In February, with COVID-19 cases surging in Italy, the 2020 edition of the International Journalism Festival, a popular annual gathering in Perugia, was cancelled—an early media-industry portent of mass cancellations to come. Over the weekend, the festival’s organizers announced that the 2021 edition of the festival, which was slated for April, has been cancelled, too. As the Tow Center’s Bell noted on Twitter, by the time the festival returns, “it is hard to imagine how different things will be for journalism.”

Other notable stories:

Podcast: Public Editors: Why even good reporting no longer impacts the vote

The Substackerati

November 16, 2020 - 6:00am
Did a newsletter company create a more equitable media system—or replicate the flaws of the old one?

Public Editors: Why even good reporting no longer impacts the vote

November 13, 2020 - 1:15pm
The media did better work covering Trump than in 2016, but did that reporting have any impact on the real world? On this week’s Kicker, Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, sits down with CJR’s public editors—Ariana Pekary for CNN, Maria Bustillos for MSNBC, Gabriel Snyder for the New York Times, and Hamilton Nolan […]

Will Donald Trump start his own right-wing news channel?

November 13, 2020 - 6:41am

As Trump and his allies continue their desperate efforts to overturn the election results, there are reports that the soon-to-be former president is planning to launch his own media venture. Mike Allen, of Axios, wrote in his newsletter on Thursday that Trump “has told friends he wants to start a digital media company to clobber Fox News and undermine the conservative-friendly network.” According to Allen, a source with detailed knowledge of Trump’s notions said that he “plans to wreck Fox, no doubt about it.” Trump, apparently livid that Fox News was the first major network to call the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, has been berating the network both privately and publicly ever since. (Vanity Fair reported that Trump called Rupert Murdoch, the founder of News Corp, to scream at him and demand a retraction, but Murdoch refused.) Yesterday, Trump shared a series of messages from supporters who said they were bailing on Fox for Newsmax, a right-wing news outlet run by Trump’s friend Christopher Ruddy. “Suit yourself Left Fox 4 NewsMaxxxxx,” one said.

In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times, Stephen Battaglio argued that the odds of Trump successfully launching a competitor to Fox News are extremely slim. Even with Trump behind it, introducing a new cable network “would be a difficult climb in the current TV landscape, where consumers have shifted away from pay TV subscriptions,” Battaglio wrote. “As the universe of traditional pay TV customers slowly but steadily diminishes, getting operators to pay a license fee to carry a new channel would be a major challenge.” Yet Allen said that, according to his sources, Trump is planning a digital-only channel. Trump would likely charge a monthly fee directly to his fans, the sources said, and would aim to draw viewers from Fox Nation, the $5.99-a-month streaming digital offering from Fox News.

Allen also reported that Trump is planning to target an audience using the mailing and cellphone lists he acquired as part of his campaigns. At least one lawyer, a Democrat named Marc Elias, has said that doing so could be illegal, a violation of campaign finance laws against using campaign data for personal purposes. “This is one of the few portions of the campaign finance laws that are routinely prosecuted criminally,” Elias tweeted. Of course, that may be no deterrent—Trump has repeatedly breached ethical rules before.

New from CJR: The fall of Trump propels the climate story into a decisive new era

If the talk about a “Trump TV” launch sounds familiar, that’s because there was similar speculation in the run-up to the presidential election in 2016. Until the final numbers were counted, the overwhelming expectation was that Trump would lose badly, and that his post-election plans would involve the formation of a media entity. That was why he brought on Steve Bannon and Roger Ailes as advisors, reports said. Vanity Fair quoted sources saying that Trump had “become irked by his ability to create revenue for other media organizations without being able to take a cut himself.” CNN’s Brian Stelter said that Trump might want to “launch a new television channel, or launch a new giant website, a new subscription service,” and the New York Times reported that Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, had explored either starting their own media entity or buying a stake in an existing one.

None of that came to pass, obviously. Could it happen now? Of course it could. As for whether it would be robust or not, skeptics note that when others in Trump’s orbit have attempted to become media entrepreneurs, it hasn’t always panned out: there was the Sarah Palin Channel, a digital subscription that launched after the 2012 election, then vanished without a trace; and The Blaze, a media entity started in 2011 by Glenn Beck, who hired dozens of staff, without ever becoming much of a media force. Trump is a more potent star than either Palin or Beck. But whether he can convert his fans into paying subscribers—and how serious he is about doing so—is very much an open question. Until we have an answer, at least, Newsmax is getting a ratings boost.

Here’s more on Trump and the media:

  • Doomed: Asawin Suebsaeng, who reports on Trump for The Daily Beast, said on Twitter that even if Trump does decide to launch some kind of media channel, it will likely be doomed. “He couldn’t get any measurable number to leave Fox for [One America News Network] over four years, so I think Trump TV has a great chance of being Palin TV, the thing you invariably forgot had even happened,” Suebsaeng said. “Trump keeps saying that Fox is forgetting what got them where they are today, but insane, email-chain racism existed long before 2015, so I think Fox News will be fine.”
  • A cudgel: Ben Smith, the media columnist for the New York Times, said he thinks it’s best to see Trump’s talk about a media entity as a combination of a stick to beat Fox with and an enticement to potential partners. “Best to see it as likeliest a) a cudgel against Fox (which could backfire) and b) maybe a licensing exercise, in which OANN and Newsmax and maybe others bid for his name,” Smith said. Joe Wiesenthal, of Bloomberg TV, said that Trump could succeed if he surrounds himself “with serious media operators, as opposed to clowns and random hangers on.”
  • A problem: Trump’s bashing of Fox News didn’t start with its Arizona call on election night. Consider his comments last month,  during a two-hour radio “rally” and interview with Rush Limbaugh: “Fox is a problem,” Trump said. “When Roger Ailes ran Fox, I mean, Roger had a very strong point of view. It’s totally gone.” Trump added that he thought Fox was “going the way of CNN, and they’re going the way of MSNBC, and it’s a shame.” On Twitter this week, he said that Fox “forgot the Golden Goose,” in an apparent reference to himself.


Other notable stories:

  • A bomb explosion in southern Afghanistan on Thursday killed a reporter who was working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Afghan Service, according to a report by Voice of America. Afghan officials said the journalist, Elyas Dayee, and his brother were traveling to the press club in the capital of Helmand province when an explosive device ripped through their car. Dayee was killed and the blast injured his brother, also a journalist, and two others who were also in the car. Dayee had been reporting from Helmand for more than a decade for the Afghan branch of the US government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty external broadcast services.
  • All this week, CJR has been using its Galley discussion platform to speak with Maria Bustillos about her new journalism collective, Brick House. The collective includes Popula, the alternative arts and culture magazine that Bustillos founded, as well as a number of other outlets including Hmm Weekly from Tom Scocca, The Sludge Report, Preachy, and Olongo Africa, a pan-African literary digest edited by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún. Some of the members of the collective were previously part of Civil, the cryptocurrency-powered journalism platform that failed to take off.
  • YouTube pushed back against claims that its platform is helping to promote and spread misinformation surrounding the election, The Verge reports. The company said that its most popular videos related to the election are from authoritative sources, and that it takes measures to stop the spread of videos containing false or misleading claims by not showing them in search results or through its recommendation engine. YouTube’s comments appeared to be in response to a tweet from Bloomberg journalist Mark Bergen, who criticized the company’s moderation of election content.
  • Fox News has confirmed that John Solomon, a pro-Trump commentator,  is no longer affiliated with the network, according to a report from The Daily Beast. Solomon’s work has been controversial even at Fox, where even the “Brain Room” warned hosts and anchors not to trust his “disinformation” about Trump or alleged ties between Ukraine and Biden. Solomon worked for a number of media outlets during his career, including the Washington Post, before joining The Hill, where he pushed stories claiming that Trump was the victim of a deep state plot.
  • Bill Grueskin writes for CJR about what the media should do after Trump is gone, and how it needs to kick its addiction to reporting on the train wreck that he represents. “This may wind up as the greatest risk of all for the press,” he writes. “Trump, who craves the spotlight the way a kitten craves the sunny corner of a rug, will demand to be seen and heard. It will take every ounce of self-control that journalists can muster to resist his insistence on getting attention and air time. We saw how badly the cable networks, in particular, handled this in the 2016 campaign, with their incessant and uncritical broadcasting of Trump rallies and remarks.”
  • Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told staff on Thursday that Steve Bannon had not violated enough of the company’s policies to justify the suspension of his account, even after Bannon posted that two senior US officials should be beheaded. On November 5, Bannon posted a video saying that Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and Anthony Fauci, the government infectious diseases expert, should have their heads placed on pikes for being disloyal to Donald Trump.
  • A federal court judge in Georgia rejected a defamation lawsuit brought by Donald Trump against CNN. The case was launched over an opinion piece written by Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. Noble took the position that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should have charged Trump campaign officials with soliciting dirt on his opponents. The lawsuit objected to one line in particular about the Trump campaign assessing “the potential risks and benefits of again seeking Russia’s help in 2020.” The judge said that Trump failed to show malice on the part of CNN.
  • In October, Gannett offered a round of voluntary buyouts to all its employees. According to a report from Poynter, roughly 600 people opted in and about 500 buyouts were accepted. Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 250 other daily newspapers, is the country’s largest newspaper chain, with about 21,000 employees, 5,000 of whom are journalists. According to Poynter, the list of those who took the buyout offer includes about 60 editors, 19 photojournalists, seven managing editors, three executive editors, and 124 reporters.

ICYMI: Why the coronavirus and election stories will be hard to untangle


‘A person is the prism’: A conversation with Vinson Cunningham

November 13, 2020 - 5:55am
So much of journalism, especially the teaching of it, focuses on figuring out what the story is, who the right sources are, and how to get the story. The actual writing process is often given less emphasis and is generally thought of as the less exciting part (for good reason sometimes; see: transcription). It’s this […]

What will the press do without Trump?

November 12, 2020 - 11:05am
In November 1962, the not-yet-infamous Richard Nixon famously gave what he claimed would be his last press conference, right after losing a gubernatorial race in California (and two years after losing a presidential bid to John Kennedy). This is what he told reporters:  “As I leave you, I want you to know—just think how much […]

Don’t let Biden’s victory cloud the issue: journalism needs to reach Americans again

November 12, 2020 - 10:00am
The US media is in danger. Most urgently, it is in danger of dislocating its collective shoulder in its rush to pat itself on the back for its handling of the 2020 election. Already we have had multiple stories celebrating the fact that, in the days since Donald Trump was safely declared the loser of […]

What does a Joe Biden presidency mean for tech?

November 12, 2020 - 6:45am
While Donald Trump does his best to muddy the election waters with lawsuits alleging non-existent voting fraud and other nefarious behavior, pragmatists in a number of fields are busy preparing for a Biden presidency, and trying to anticipate what to expect from his administration in terms of regulation. For the technology industry, one of the […]

Now we need to rebuild local newsrooms

November 11, 2020 - 8:04am
After nearly four years swimming through a tangled morass of chaos, misinformation, and an executive power hostile to its purpose, the US media is coming up for air. The world beyond a Trump presidency promises the luxury of spare time and attention. That’s good news. But the Trump administration forced the press into a defensive […]

Republican election denialism isn’t scary or funny or pathetic. It’s all of the above.

November 11, 2020 - 7:19am

Yesterday, as senior Republican officials continued to indulge President-unelect Trump’s election fantasies, his claims of widespread voter fraud continued to be baseless, and reporters continued to point that out. Republicans in various states have made mountains out of procedural molehills and challenged inconsequential numbers of votes, including in areas Trump won. When a judge in Pennsylvania asked a Trump lawyer whether he was actually alleging any fraud, the lawyer replied, “To my knowledge at present, no”; meanwhile, according to the Washington Post and a Congressional committee, a postal worker in the same state admitted to inventing fraud claims that attracted widespread attention. (The postal worker denies this.) Various outlets noted that donations Trump has solicited to help him “DEFEND” the election have been used to pay down campaign debt and funneled to a new Trump PAC; per the New York Times, “only after a donor gives more than $5,000 does any of the money go to the recount account that Trump set up.” Times reporters separately canvassed politicians and election administrators in every state and found nothing nefarious to report. The story tops A1 today, under the headline, “ELECTION OFFICIALS NATIONWIDE FIND NO FRAUD.”

In media circles, a debate about how best to cover the fraud lies and frivolous litigation has taken shape. Some commentators have argued that covering them at all is a waste of time that only risks boosting the president’s true, non-legal objective, which is to seed widespread public distrust. “Should I do an investigation calling all fifty states’ Parks and Recreation departments to figure out that Big Foot isn’t a thing?” ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman tweeted. “Because that’s what the New York Times just did with voter fraud.” Others have covered Trump’s efforts but urged news consumers not to freak about them, given that they won’t work. “Everybody needs to take a deep breath,” Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC yesterday. “It’s sound and fury signifying nothing.” Many are furious. “I admire those of you who can take an ‘it’s not going to work so calm down’ approach to all of this,” Jamelle Bouie, a columnist at the Times, wrote yesterday, “because I am incredibly angry with the Republican Party’s cynical and cowardly willingness to delegitimize democracy to save face with the monster they put into office.” Some remain terrified that Trump and his allies are trying to pull off a coup. “Trump’s tantrum… is getting out of control, and dangerous,” Elvia Díaz, a columnist at the Arizona Republic, wrote. “All this talk and moves to forcibly remain in office should scare the hell out of everyone.”

New from CJR: The fall of Trump propels the climate story into a decisive new era

All these responses are justifiable. More than that, they can all be correct. Time and again in the Trump era, we’ve had to cover stories—the Bible photo op, Sharpiegate, and so on—that are at once funny, and eye-rollingly pathetic, and extremely harmful; now such stories are coming thick and fast, as satirically amateurish lawsuits vie for our attention with abuses of federal power. On Saturday, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, spread conspiracies about fraud at a press conference outside the Four Seasons in Philadelphia—not the hotel, but a landscaping business adjacent to an adult bookstore and a crematorium. Hilarious? Yes. Really actually not funny? Also yes. The traditional press, which tends to privilege clarity of narrative and flatness of tone, has never really been equipped to handle such jarring contradictions. Yesterday, a reporter asked Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, whether his department was coordinating with Joe Biden’s team, and Pompeo replied that “there will be a smooth transition… to a second Trump administration.” There followed a debate among journalists as to whether or not Pompeo was joking. But much of that debate glided right past the salient point: a key tenet of Trumpism and its informational architecture has been to blur the line between joking and not joking until there is no longer a meaningful distinction.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, his enablers in the Senate, in particular, have routinely deployed the “joke” excuse to dodge difficult questions. Those enablers have used sophistry and technicalities as blurring devices, too—they did it during impeachment and around Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, and they’re doing it again now, telling reporters and TV anchors that Trump is simply exercising his rightful options and that, actually, there is no result until it’s certified, even though this is not how any recent election call has worked. (As Parker Molloy, of Media Matters for America, pointed out, Republicans “are taking things that are formalities and trying to reframe them as being ‘the real’ election.”) Members of the media have often pushed back strongly on such logic, but on occasion, they’ve let it slide, or even conceded the point to try and make interviewees instead address Trump’s wildest claims. But these talking points are all inseparable parts of a multi-pronged disinformation campaign.

Again, we’ve seen much admirably tough journalism this week. (Some observers have wondered where such toughness has been for the last four years.) Still, some of the rhythms and assumptions of political journalism have risked aiding top Republicans in their line-blurring. Coverage has often framed the behavior of Republican senators in strategic terms—an attempt to fire up the base ahead of Senate runoffs in Georgia, or to mollify Trump to avoid a scene. Such framing, however, can shift the focus away from the outrageousness of the behavior itself. (On the Times’s podcast The Daily last Friday, Maggie Haberman said that Sen. Lindsey Graham had echoed Trump’s election lies “under some duress”—the duress in question being a mean tweet from Donald Trump, Jr.) And reporters have continued to allow Republican officials to anonymously contradict their public defiance by privately noting that Trump is finished. As I’ve written before, anonymity is complicated, and it’s newsworthy that at least some of Trump’s enablers seem to be lying, rather than delusional. Still, anonymity does not always equal truth—as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted yesterday, “politicians are good at telling people, including reporters, what they want to hear”—and without knowing who said what, true intentions are impossible to gauge. More importantly, what officials are saying privately matters far less than what they are doing publicly—yet by anonymously laundering the disparity between the two, they can soften the focus on the acts. The entire point of conceding an election is to communicate something to the public. It’s meaningless if it’s not done publicly.

The Trump-era debate over whether and how to amplify lies and other forms of bad-faith engagement has circled so endlessly because it’s impossible to settle. Allowing bad actors to use you to sow confusion and contradiction has unsustainable costs, but so, often, does failing to raise the alarm about the attempt, particularly when it comes to something as fundamental as election integrity. The joke/not-a-joke phenomenon drives at the same media weakness: if we rise to it, we’re “triggered”; if we don’t, bad actors use our silence to expand the boundaries of what they can get away with.

The voter-fraud myth has been one such story: the president pushed it in 2016, which seemed ridiculous to many in the press because he’d won, but it had the effect of buttressing his present lies, which are impeding a proper transition of power. Many of the present lies, too, seem ridiculous and futile—but they’ve now spread throughout the Republican Party, and could buttress any number of dark actions in future elections that are closer than this one. At some point, the reality-based press has to intervene as strongly as it can—no exceptions—and call this out for what it is. That doesn’t mean we can’t find Giuliani funny; joking about authoritarianism is its own form of power. But it requires recognizing authoritarianism first.

Below, more on the election and the transition:

  • It’s complicated: In recent days, a debate has raged, in media circles, as to whether Rupert Murdoch’s empire is “divorcing” Trump—the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal are nudging the president to concede graciously, but opinion hosts on Fox are backing up his fraud conspiracy. The complicated picture, Michael M. Grynbaum writes for the Times, is a reflection of typical Murdochian “realpolitik.” Murdoch “will do as he has done in other cases,” one former associate said, “which is adapt to a new reality.”
  • Georgia on our minds: For the Washington Post, Reis Thebault profiles Robin Kemp, who was the only reporter to observe the entirety of the absentee-vote count in Clayton County, Georgia, that helped establish Biden’s lead in the state. Kemp founded the Clayton Crescent, an independent news site, earlier this year after her local paper, the Clayton News, laid her off; her work tracking the count drove readers and donations to her site and saw her Twitter following explode. Also in Georgia, with the Senate runoffs approaching, John Fredericks, a pro-Trump talk-radio host, is launching a hyperpartisan right-wing news site with the stated aim of combatting “the fake-news, corporate Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” Spencer Silva has more for Media Matters for America.
  • How did voting go?: On The Takeaway, Tanzina Vega discussed what the election taught us about the mechanics of voting in America with Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center. Pérez argued that members of the media need to reflect on how they cover individual voting problems. “I think it’s very clear that, in trying to educate voters about things that can go wrong, they nationalize one-offs,” Pérez said. “People really only need to worry about the problems in their state when it comes to their ability to vote.”
  • The actual next president: MSNBC has severed ties with several paid on-air contributors who have joined Biden’s transition team, including the legal analyst Barbara McQuade, the political analyst Richard Stengel, the medical expert Ezekiel Emanuel, and the historian Jon Meacham—who helped write Biden’s victory speech on Saturday, then appeared on MSNBC to praise it without disclosing his involvement. Stengel, a former State Department official and editor at Time magazine, will lead Biden’s team reviewing policy around the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees broadcasters including Voice of America and has been overtly politicized by Trump and his allies.
  • That sex shop down the road: Slate’s Rachelle Hampton interviewed Bernie D’Angelo, who owns the sex shop, Fantasy Island Adult Books and Novelties, that neighbors Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia. “Donald Trump starts out playing around with Stormy Daniels, and next thing you know, one of his final hurrahs is going to be down the street from an adult bookstore that’s been there for forty years,” D’Angelo said. “You can’t write this stuff.”

Other notable stories: 

  • This morning, China removed four pro-democracy lawmakers from Hong Kong’s legislature, and the remainder of their colleagues resigned in protest—a major new development in China’s war on dissenting speech in the territory which has included a press-freedom crackdown. Yesterday, Bao Choy, a journalist with the public broadcaster RTHK, appeared in court after she was arrested in a connection with a program that investigated a mob attack on pro-democracy protesters and journalists last year. Even Hong Kong’s news stands are in decline, as the BBC’s Grace Tsoi reported yesterday.
  • Yesterday’s other big story came at the Supreme Court, where justices heard arguments in a case aimed at destroying the Affordable Care Act. The law’s individual mandate may be struck down, but Congress already rendered it toothless, and five justices—including the conservatives John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh—signaled that ruling the mandate unconstitutional need not imperil the remainder of the law. A ruling is expected next year.
  • The LA Times and Tribune Publishing, its former owner, will pay out $3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by women and journalists of color who allege that bosses at the paper paid them less than their white, male counterparts, in breach of California state law. Both the LA Times and Tribune have denied breaking any laws, and have not admitted to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. The LA Times’s Meg James has more details.
  • Recently, ProPublica and the Arizona Daily Star translated an investigation on disability benefits into plain language, which makes information more accessible for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. According to Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire, the translation appears to be the first ever to have run in an outlet “that isn’t specifically produced by and/or for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
  • Spotify has made another podcast-related acquisition, purchasing Megaphone in a deal worth $235 million. Formerly known as Panoply Media, Megaphone now focuses on podcast production, advertising, and metrics, allowing advertisers to target listeners across a range of podcasts and apps. The Wall Street Journal’s Anne Steele has more.
  • Yesterday, The Verge launched a new podcast, Decoder with Nilay Patel, hosted by the site’s editor in chief and focused on the future of tech, business, and policy; the first episode features an interview with Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. The show will build on Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode podcast. Swisher is now at the Times.
  • In Mexico, assassins shot and killed Israel Vázquez, a reporter with the news site El Salmantino, as he prepared to go live on air to cover the discovery of human remains in Salamanca, in Guanajuato state. According to press-freedom groups, nine journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, three of them in the last month. CNN has more.
  • In the UK, a man pleaded guilty to fraud charges after he copied articles from the Northern Echo, a local newspaper, onto a fake news website and used the content to solicit donations in aid of “independent, carefully-researched news stories.” The man said in court that he received zero donations. The Northern Echo has more.
  • And solidarity with Ken Dilanian.

ICYMI: Why the coronavirus and election stories will be hard to untangle

The fall of Trump propels the climate story into a decisive new era

November 11, 2020 - 6:12am
Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election is the biggest development in the climate story in years, if only because it means that the story might not have a hellish ending after all. News columns and Zoom meetings are already abuzz with to-do lists and speculation about what the administration of president-elect Joe Biden […]

Why the coronavirus and election stories will be hard to untangle

November 10, 2020 - 7:27am

Last week, the pandemic continued not to respect editors’ and politicians’ priorities. The day after Election Day, the US recorded more than 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19—the first time any country had surpassed that daily rate. The same day, Mark Meadows, President Trump’s chief of staff, tested positive for the disease; he tried to keep his diagnosis under wraps, but the public found out about it on Friday via Bloomberg, which has become a preeminent source on the White House petri-dish beat. The day before Meadows’s positive test, he visited Trump’s campaign HQ and then attended a White House election party; according to Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS, aides feared the election party would be a COVID superspreader, but felt pressured to show up. The Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who also attended the party, has now tested positive for COVID; so, too, has David Bossie, who is spearheading Trump’s post-election legal fight. Back on the macro level, the US beat its own daily record for confirmed cases on Thursday, then again on Friday, then again on Saturday. By Sunday, the country had recorded its ten-millionth confirmed case.

Records aside, this was all grimly repetitive; for months now, the COVID story has been a ceaseless cycle of infection, death, and administration fecklessness. Yesterday, however, felt like a possible inflection point, as two developments gave news consumers possible glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel. First, Joe Biden, the president-elect, unveiled a thirteen-member COVID task force that will help guide his pandemic response. Several of its members will be familiar to news junkies—Atul Gawande is a staff writer at the New Yorker, while Vivek Murthy, Michael Osterholm, Ezekiel Emanuel, and Celine Gounder all appear regularly on TV—but not in the “Trump-Fox-feedback-loop” sense to which we’ve all become accustomed. (A Biden-New Yorker feedback loop would be an interesting thought experiment, but still not a good way to run an administration.) The Washington Post covered the task force under a headline—“Biden announces coronavirus task force made up of physicians and health experts”—that, as the journalist and CJR contributor Gabriel Snyder noted, was overwhelming in its normality, “like reading ‘Dog Bites Man’ after a long spell cowering in fear about a crazy man who was going around biting everyone’s dogs.” Biden also held a press briefing and called on all Americans to wear masks, a presidential invocation of science that CNN’s Sanjay Gupta called “surreal.” Presidential invocations of bleach—which are actually surreal—will soon be a thing of the past.

Related: Biden wins, but Trump—and division—aren’t going away

Also yesterday, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer made a big announcement: according to an early analysis, a vaccine that the company has been developing with BioNTech, a German drugmaker, was more than ninety-percent effective among trial volunteers, with no serious safety concerns observed. Sarah Zhang—a science writer at The Atlantic who warned recently that it can be hard to tell what’s significant and what isn’t amid an unprecedented, dizzying flood of vaccine news—called the Pfizer announcement a “*big deal*”; around the world, medical experts debated the announcement, and reporters, as CNN’s Brian Stelter put it, “zigzagged between optimism and caution.” There were grounds for both: the ninety-percent finding was surprising and hopeful, but it’s not yet clear how long immunity from the vaccine lasts, and Pfizer has yet to show its work. (It made its announcement in a press release, not a peer-reviewed journal.) Even if all is well scientifically, we’re left with the thorny questions of production, distribution, and uptake. Still, appropriately nuanced coverage is always grounds for optimism; science, after all, is naturally zigzaggy. There’s reason to hope that Biden, as president, will drive fewer—and less anguished—COVID headlines than Trump has done, leaving more space in our collective attention span for the scientific method to play out in public.

We’re not there yet, though. For all the past-tense talk of Trump’s presidency, he will remain in office for another two months—and it’s hard to imagine he’ll devote his last days in power to prudent public-health management. How many more Americans will become infected and die before Inauguration Day? Already, the Trump administration and its media boosters have acted to politicize the Pfizer announcement—claiming credit for it, at the thin end of the wedge, and suggesting a conspiracy of timing, toward the thicker end. On Fox Business, Dagen McDowell accused Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, of “fomenting fear and uncertainty about the vaccine” out of antipathy toward Trump; on Fox & Friends, Ainsley Earhardt asked Charles Payne whether he was “curious” about Pfizer’s timing given that “we had an election a week ago,” and Payne called the situation “frustrating.” On Twitter, Donald Trump, Jr., suggested that the timing was “nefarious”; later, his father fired off a tweetstorm accusing Pfizer of cowardice and his own Food and Drug Administration of obstructionism. (Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, told CNN’s Gupta that he only found out about the trial analysis on Sunday.) Jumping off the wedge entirely, anti-vaxxers flooded social media with conspiracy theories, including in spaces—anti-lockdown Facebook groups, for instance—whose causes Trump has promoted.

Medicine is inherently political, and often, that’s a truth to be embraced. But when the political realm is as toxic and divided as it is right now, it militates against principles—like uncertainty, good-faith discussion, self-correction—that are essential to good science. Having a president committed to good science and scientific communication is essential, but it isn’t sufficient to end America’s COVID crisis—tackling the pandemic can’t be fully elite-driven because it requires public buy-in. Diehard Trump supporters won’t suddenly embrace masks and social distancing because Biden asks them to—they already don’t trust Biden, and Trump continuing to call the election result illegitimate will only pour gasoline on that dynamic, whether he does so from the Oval Office or as a private citizen. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s also a lot more tunnel yet to come. The virus doesn’t respect our desire for a narrative shift.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • A more optimistic view: In an op-ed for the Post, Daniel W. Drezner, a politics professor at Tufts University, argues that the timing of Pfizer’s announcement could actually “maximize the number of Americans willing to take the vaccine.” Transitions between presidents of different parties are generally “funny moments in public opinion” that “can produce rare confluences,” Drezner writes; on this occasion, both Trump and Biden have good reason to trumpet the vaccine, which could “increase trust in the vaccine across the political spectrum.”
  • Warped reality: Vice President Mike Pence has credited the administration’s Operation Warp Speed program with Pfizer’s progress, but Pfizer executives have sought to distance themselves from the initiative. On Sunday, Kathrin Jansen, the company’s head of vaccine research and development, said, “We were never part of the Warp Speed”; yesterday, a spokesperson clarified that Pfizer is part of the program for the purposes of supplying a potential vaccine, but has not received any federal funding for R&D, unlike some of its competitors. Katie Palmer, science and health editor at Quartz, writes that confusion about the arrangement stems, in part, from “the way many Operation Warp Speed contracts have been executed, with their terms largely invisible to the public.” NPR and watchdog groups have obtained some redacted contracts, with FOIA requests for others still pending.
  • A lawsuit: Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a Republican-led case aimed at destroying the Affordable Care Act. “The ACA has remained in place for a decade, and the legal landscape has changed so much over that time that many of those who originally took issue with the law in the Supreme Court think this challenge is a stretch,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg reports; still, the makeup of the court has changed, too, with the recent confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has criticized prior rulings upholding the ACA, entrenching a conservative majority on the bench.
  • Remember them?: Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, have tested positive for COVID-19, lengthening the list of world leaders and high-ranking functionaries to have contracted the disease. Last month, CJR’s Shinhee Kang and Ian Karbal spoke with reporters in three countries about covering world leaders’ health. Zelensky and Yermak, you may recall, were involved in an American political scandal a million years ago.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Trump’s tumultuous “lame duck” period (we’re gonna need a new phrase) started in earnest. William Barr, the attorney general, authorized federal prosecutors to investigate “specific allegations” of voter fraud; his edict was carefully-worded, but it nonetheless overturned longstanding Justice Department policy, prompting Richard Pilger, the head of the department’s voter-fraud branch, to resign. Elsewhere, we learned that the White House has threatened to fire any political appointee caught looking for a new job. And Trump fired Mark Esper, his defense secretary, and replaced him on an acting basis with Christopher Miller, a senior counterterrorism official (not the BuzzFeed reporter or Lego Movie director). Esper’s firing was inevitable—so much so that he gave an exit interview to Meghann Myers, of Military Times, last week. It ran yesterday.
  • Mark and Patricia McCloskey—the St. Louis couple who went viral after brandishing firearms at protesters outside their home—are suing Bill Greenblatt, a photographer who captured the scene, and Greenblatt’s employer, United Press International, on trespassing grounds. The McCloskeys also allege that Greenblatt, UPI, and Redbubble, an online marketplace for printed products, have profited from merchandise making fun of the couple; UPI, for its part, recently considered legal action against the McCloskeys after they used its photo on a greeting card. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has more.
  • Today, Public Media for All, a group that aims to diversify public media, will hold a “Day of Action”: Caroline Lester reports for CJR that staffers of color are invited to call in sick, and white allies are encouraged to have tough workplace conversations about race. Six NPR stations—KCUR, Rocky Mountain Public Media, WUKY, KUT, Capital Public Radio, and Oregon Public Broadcasting—will take part in the Day of Action, and have pledged, within three years, to pay interns, diversify, and create systems to combat discrimination.
  • For OneZero, Marta Martinez spoke with social-media managers, for news organizations and other institutions, who are on the frontlines of the furious 2020 news cycle. “They are under immense pressure to stay online, always be on call, respond quickly, and not make mistakes,” Martinez writes. “In some cases they are on the verge of psychological collapse. Yet the importance of their work is still often invisible and undermined.”
  • CJR’s Savannah Jacobson spoke with Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton who has written on the eviction crisis in the US, about how journalists could better cover housing issues. “I think where we could be better is really to tell the story about who owns our cities—the real business dynamics on the ground,” Desmond says. “I also think we could tell better stories about the work behind housing policy.”
  • According to the Indian Express, vandals in the Indian state of Tripura intercepted nearly 6,000 copies of Pratibadi Kalam, a local newspaper, then destroyed them by the side of the road. While the culprits have yet to be officially identified, Pratibadi Kalam’s top editor thinks that the incident was a response to the paper’s reporting on an agriculture scam.
  • In Israel, Ruth Eglash, a Jerusalem-based correspondent for the Washington Post, has taken a new job as a spokesperson for Gilad Erdan, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations who, from January, will also serve as the country’s ambassador to the US. Eglash worked at the Post since 2013, and previously was at the Jerusalem Post.
  • And the fallout continues from Rudy Giuliani’s Four Seasons (not that one) voter-fraud presser in Philadelphia. Politico’s Matt Friedman identified a “witness” called by Giuliani as a convicted sex offender. And a YouTuber rendered the location of the presser—a landscaping business, not a hotel—in virtual reality. Furries (virtually) flocked to it.

ICYMI: Masha Gessen on Trump’s bid for autocracy