Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) think tank, may or may not be confirmed by the Senate as the Biden administration’s budget chief. Republicans and one conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, may reject her based on her past of posting overly personal attacks against Republicans on Twitter. Those attacks also extended to independent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, although it is expected that he’ll vote for her (Newsweek, 2/11/21).
The obvious angle much of the press is focused on is Republican complaints that Biden has appointed a partisan in-fighter while claiming to be pursuing national unity (CBS, 2/20/21; CNN, 2/22/21). It’s tempting to view the whole affair as another episode of finger pointing over “cancel culture,” as Republicans, who nominally object to angry social justice activists limiting the free speech of aggressive Twitter users, are now trying to do just that to someone on the other side of the aisle.
While it’s not an issue that is likely to torpedo her nomination, one part of her record should give pause to anyone concerned with how she would set economic policy when it comes to workers: her role an apparent attempt to bust a union of media workers.
CAP, under Tanden’s leadership, published ThinkProgress, a liberal-leaning news site covering many aspects of policy and politics—similar to Huffington Post or Politico, but with a clearer partisan anchoring. The ThinkProgress union was a unit of the Writers Guild of America East, which in recent years has moved beyond the film and television industry to organizing journalists in the digital media sector (FAIR.org, 6/18/19). The ThinkProgress union secured its first collective bargaining agreement in 2016, which included wage floors, revenue sharing, editorial independence and a just cause provision, the latter making it hard to fire workers.
The short version is, according to Talking Points Memo (9/10/19): CAP announced that it was shutting down the site, laying off union staffers, and then said it was going to relaunch the site days later. The union cried foul, seeing this as a ploy to simply cleanse the news organization of its union. In the wake of the backlash, CAP decided not to reopen the site, and archived its contents instead.
Politico (11/30/20) reported that a source close to Tanden denied union busting was at play in the shutdown of the site. “The Center for American Progress remained neutral during ThinkProgress‘ unionization drive,” according to the unnamed source, “and the site shut down because of declining ad revenue and social media algorithm changes, not due to the union.”
Media unionists weren’t convinced by this defense. Paul Blest of Splinter (9/10/19) put it this way:
In the end, CAP’s arrogant certainty that it could essentially borrow a line out of the Bustle playbook after stressing its support for unions for years and years resulted in public humiliation and less revenue. That’s little solace, of course, to the people who lost their jobs and those who spent years building ThinkProgress into one of the better sources of smart policy journalism in America.
If there’s any lesson to be gleaned from this, it’s that liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress are not a friend to media workers, or workers in general. These places, and the people who run them, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to “unify” all of the various wings of the progressive and liberal movements (with a desire for less input from some wings than others, I imagine) under the banner of being on the same “team” against the Republican Party. But it ultimately didn’t matter that these bosses were liberal and nice…. The workers at this site still got jerked around for quite a long time before being unceremoniously dumped under the reasoning that the media industry just isn’t profitable enough.
This isn’t extraordinary. The liberal news outlet Vox was accused of union busting by workers there (Washington Examiner, 12/13/17). And although Vox eventually came around to recognizing the union (Variety, 1/11/18), the employer’s hardline stance in negotiating led to a one-day staff walkout (Bloomberg, 6/6/19). BuzzFeed workers also staged a walkout in their organizing efforts (The Hill, 6/17/19).
There is plenty of talk among Tanden’s defenders that if she is rejected, it will be because of partisan pettiness (bolstered by misogyny). Her supporters argue that her experience in executive leadership make her qualified for the job, and that because she is undoubtedly close to the Democratic Party establishment, Biden could count on her for loyalty.
But many workers or labor organizers in liberal nonprofit settings have learned the hard way that lofty ideas of equality and justice in the workplace don’t extend to the home office. For progressive media workers, who have long watched the WGAE’s efforts to unionize the digital media sector with hope, Tanden embodies that dynamic. So while it might be Republican hypocrisy that ultimately sinks Tanden, supporters of workers rights may breathe a sigh of relief to see her removed from the budget-making process.
Featured image: Neera Tanden (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)
Rush Limbaugh died on February 17, leaving behind a legacy of lies, bigotry, science denial and conspiracy mongering—as well as a media and political system significantly transformed by his influence.
Limbaugh was a talented broadcaster who forged an intimate connection with his audience. Since he launched his nationally syndicated radio show in 1988, his success has helped to inspire an army of lesser talk radio clones, fueled an explosive growth in right-wing media generally, and introduced a new era of conservative commentary and politics steeped in aggrieved resentment and a willful disregard for facts.
Limbaugh’s influence can be seen in everything from 1994’s “Gingrich Revolution” to the Bush administration’s baiting of “reality-based communities” to the Tea Party movement to the January 6 storming of the Capitol. It is no exaggeration to say that the Donald Trump movement is in many ways the culmination of the project Rush Limbaugh has been working on for more than three decades.
By the time FAIR published its pioneering 1994 report on Limbaugh, “The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh vs. Reality” (Extra!, 7–8/94), his show was already the biggest thing in talk radio, Ronald Reagan had dubbed him the leader of the conservative movement, and George H.W. Bush had carried Limbaugh’s luggage to the White House Lincoln Bedroom. GOP leaders would soon credit the talk radio host with helping flip the House in their favor in the 1994 elections.
Our report provided dozens of examples of Limbaugh’s penchant for falsehoods, like his claims that bra size is inversely correlated with women’s IQs, that there is “no conclusive proof” nicotine is addictive and that “the poorest people in America are better off than the mainstream families of Europe.”
But despite his power and connections, the fact that Limbaugh was a serial dissembler seemed to come as a surprise to establishment media, who treated the report like a breaking story. A clipping service FAIR hired for the occasion found more 1,200 outlets had published an Associated Press story (6/29/94) on our report, while dozens more stories ran from other wire services and newspapers. Why had Limbaugh escaped serious scrutiny for so long?
One explanation is that many of these outlets were complicit in Limbaugh’s rise. As we wrote at the time (Extra!, 7–8/94):
Limbaugh’s chronic inaccuracy, and his lack of accountability, wouldn’t be such a problem if Limbaugh were just a cranky entertainer, like Howard Stern. But Limbaugh is taken seriously by “serious” media—in addition to Nightline, he’s been an “expert” on such chat shows as Charlie Rose and Meet the Press. The New York Times (10/15/92) and Newsweek (1/24/94) have published his writings. A US News & World Report piece (8/16/93) by Steven Roberts declared, “The information Mr. Limbaugh provides is generally accurate.”
A year later, FAIR expanded the report into a book, The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error, listing even more Limbaugh falsehoods, and much more on his racism and bigotry towards women, LGBTQ people, the poor, the homeless and people living with HIV.
For many, FAIR’s report and book marked Limbaugh for the first time as a mendacious bigot. David Letterman dubbed him “The Lyin’ King,” House Speaker Gingrich stopped appearing regularly on his show, and media invites became less frequent. When Limbaugh was being considered for a job as a color commentator on ABC’s Monday Night Football program, an LA Times op-ed (6/7/00) by myself and FAIR founder Jeff Cohen reportedly played a role in ABC ultimately denying Limbaugh the job.Leave Rush alone!
Based on my long years of listening to talk radio, Limbaugh’s mastery of the medium owed much to his obvious talents—his voice and his usually light entertaining manner—and to the intimacy of a medium in which listeners, typically alone when they tune in, develop a deep if one-sided personal connection to the hosts.
And here was where Limbaugh set himself apart from other talkers. As he projected a view of himself as a victim, he also nurtured the same aggrieved sensibility in his listeners. If you listened for any amount of time, the “Rush and me against the world” vibe came through in both host and callers.
One early example of this was Rush’s false claim (Extra!, 11–12/94) that critics were campaigning to silence him through reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, which he referred to as a “Hush Rush” bill. In reality, the doctrine was never a threat to talk radio hosts, who by virtue of taking calls from listeners with various perspectives were seen as naturally complying with the FCC rule. (The rule was widely misunderstood as requiring “equal time,” which it never mandated—Extra!, 1–2/05.) Over its entire history, not one FCC judgment involving the Fairness Doctrine ever concerned itself with talk radio, which flourished locally under the doctrine for decades before its 1987 scrapping.
If Limbaugh lost some mainstream cachet because of our criticism, by the early ’00s he had served a vital purpose. The right had built up its own outlets, so conservatives didn’t need the validation of the establishment to thrive. The conservative media establishment that the right dreamed of since the days of Richard Nixon (Extra!, 3–4/95) and the Powell Memo had been realized. The year after our LA Times op-ed, Fox took over first place in cable news, and has remained there ever since. The new conservative media firmament adopted the language of grievance and resentment from the man who showed how to use establishment scorn as a recruiting tool better than anyone until Donald Trump.
It may be too simple to say that without Limbaugh, there would be no Trump, but before Limbaugh there wasn’t really a conservative movement; there was an alliance of convenience between the religious right and pro-business conservatives, who disagreed on several issues (FAIR.org, 3/6/18). Limbaugh’s show taught these disparate parts of the right that they should be one big happy family. Trump took Limbaugh’s lessons to heart, and to the White House; that may be Limbaugh’s most lasting legacy.
Sidebar:Why Talk Radio Blew Up
Talk radio not only thrived for decades under the Fairness Doctrine, it was rapidly growing in the decade before the doctrine was scrapped. A variety of factors unrelated to the doctrine contributed to the growth of talk radio in general, and conservative talk in particular. As musical programming fled to higher-fidelity FM signals, AM programmers were left with empty schedules to fill. At the same time, improvements in satellite technology and cheaper 800-number telephone lines were making national call-in shows more feasible (“Talk Show Culture,” EllenHume.com; Extra!, 1–2/07).
This confluence of factors created opportunities, and conservative talk radio, which was already going strong locally across the country, took advantage of them. Limbaugh, who’d been getting good ratings on Sacramento’s KFBK, was just one of many conservative talk hosts who benefited; in 1988, he moved to New York to launch the syndicated show on WABC that brought him to national attention.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The Guardian has fired one of its columnists for its US edition, Nathan Robinson, because Robinson jokingly tweeted about US military aid to Israel. The Guardian’s US editor-in-chief, John Mulholland, charged Robinson with spreading “fake news.” Worse, Mulholland suggested that his columnist was promoting antisemitic tropes about Israel’s influence on the US government.
In a since-deleted tweet (12/23/20), Robinson had written, in response to the $500 million in military aid for Israel in the spending that included Covid relief:
Did you know that the US Congress is not actually allowed to authorize any new spending unless a portion of it is directed toward buying weapons for Israel? It’s the law.
Lest anyone fail to recognize this as typical Twitter sarcasm, Robinson immediately appended a clarification: “or if not actually the written law then so ingrained in political custom as to functionally be indistinguishable from law.”
Later that day, Robinson received a note from Mulholland, whom he had never before heard from. (Robinson revealed his communication with Mulholland and wrote about his firing in Current Affairs—2/10/21—the socialist magazine Robinson edits.) Mulholland insisted that, “given that no such law exists,” the tweet was “fake news”—”irrespective of the later tweet when you say that it is ‘indistinguishable from law.'” And he went on to link Robinson to antisemitic conspiracy theories:
Given the reckless talk over the past year—and beyond—of how mythical “Jewish groups/alliances” yield power over all forms of public life, I am not clear how this is helpful to public discourse.
Mulholland also complained that Robinson’s remark on Twitter—a medium that limits its contributors to 280 characters at a time—did not explore the question of aid to Israel more deeply, with a cross-national historical perspective:
I am not sure why singling out financial aid to Israel in a tweet and devoid of any context—and without mention of aid to other countries either currently or historically—is a useful addition to public discourse.
“It dismays me that someone who presents themselves as a Guardian columnist would make such a clearly erroneous statement without…any context/justification,” Mulholland concluded.
It’s not a particularly persuasive critique, but as Mulholland was his boss, Robinson deleted his tweet and promised to be more careful in the future. “I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response,” Mulholland replied—but it was soon made clear that the Guardian would be publishing no more of Robinson’s columns, and that the tweet, deleted or not, was the reason.
Robinson told FAIR that Mulholland was policing his conduct beyond his role as a columnist. “It is very clear that John Mulholland wants the ability not just to curate the content of the paper, but to curate the public thoughts of all writers affiliated with the paper,” he said.
Robinson joins the ranks of journalists and intellectuals who have been “canceled” because of their criticism of Israel. Notable subjects include professor Marc Lamont Hill losing his job at CNN (11/30/18) and Steven Salaita having a job offer rescinded by the University of Illinois (Chicago Tribune, 11/12/15).
Beyond the flagrant abuse of the charge of antisemitism against any criticism of Israel (which in this case was actually a joke about US spending on Israeli arms), the incident raises a troubling question about the Guardian. When high-speed internet access became more prevalent at the dawn of the new millennium, English-language outlets outside the United States became go-to sources for left-leaning readers frustrated by the pro-Israeli and pro-US bias in US Middle East coverage (FAIR.org, 1/1/01; 1/28/11; 4/19/12). The websites of the BBC, the Guardian and the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz have, in recent decades, become important sources for broader coverage of Israel/Palestine.
The Guardian, like the Independent, has been considered one of Britain’s left-of-center publications, favored by Labour Party voters. The Guardian formalized its US online edition 10 years ago (Guardian, 9/14/11).
Of course, the Guardian’s storied anti-imperialism in the Middle East is sometimes rooted in more myth than fact: The paper (1/18/03) championed US and British-led military action in Iraq and even gave John Bolton, a prominent hawk in both the Bush and Trump administrations, space to look back approvingly on the war (2/26/13). The author page for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led the nation into the war and moved the Labour Party sharply rightward, has 75 articles.
At the same time, pro-Israel outlets have accused the Guardian of having an anti-Israel bias (Jewish Journal, 12/4/03; Algemeiner, 7/23/20). Pro-Israel media watchdogs like CAMERA and Honest Reporting have catalogued what they describe as a pro-Palestinian slant in both opinion and news coverage at the Guardian.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, media officer for Britain’s Jewish Voice for Labour, told FAIR that the group has seen a steady decline in the paper’s Middle East coverage, most recently with what the group saw as a downplaying of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem’s statement that Israel is, indeed, an apartheid state. The Guardian’s editorial (1/17/21) on the subject “was of the mealy-mouthed ‘on the one hand on the other hand’ variety,” she said:
It was left to Middle East Eye (1/14/21), one of very few independent platforms in the UK with the courage to allow open expressions of a radical, anti-colonial perspective on Israel/Palestine, to highlight the significance of B’Tselem’s work.
She pointed out that the Guardian’s opinion pieces “have in recent years become virtually closed to advocates for Palestine,” while pro-Israel “lobbyists seem to have free rein”:
The choice in October 2016 of the Israeli Ambassador to author its commemoration of 80 years since the battle of Cable Street (Guardian, 10/6/16), comparing the threat of fascism in the 1930s with that of “left-wing antisemitism” now, was the last straw for me as a life-long Guardian reader.
Wimborne-Idrissi argued that this trend mirrored the paper’s negative slant against former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as he fought accusations from the party’s centrist faction that he allowed antisemitism to fester in the party:
Influential columnist Jonathan Freedland, executive editor for a time, has played a huge role in pushing forward the anti-Corbyn agenda. Editor-in-chief Katherine Viner, despite evidence of past pro-Palestinian sympathies, has done nothing to rein in attacks on the left, including on Jewish critics of Israel who have attempted in vain to generate discussion about the so-called IHRA definition of antisemitism. The definition conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and is being aggressively deployed to close down expressions of support for Palestine.
Current political correspondent in the Westminster lobby team is Jessica Elgot, who joined the Guardian in 2015, having cut her teeth at the Jewish Chronicle, authoring many an attack on the Labour left under Corbyn. In her current role, she has continued her enthusiastic support for the smear campaign. A feature of her coverage has been to quote uncritically (Guardian, 3/8/18) from right-wing zealots with a clear anti-Palestinian—some might say Islamophobic—agenda, such as David Collier (understood to be part of the @gnasherjew collective on Twitter) and Joe Glasman of the misnamed Campaign Against Antisemitism. The latter caused consternation by responding to Corbyn’s defeat in the 2019 general election with a video celebrating how the CAA’s “spies and intel” had “slain the beast.”
A lengthy investigation by DeclassifiedUK and the Daily Maverick (9/11/19) noted that after the Guardian (6/11/13) revealed Edward Snowden’s leaks about National Security Agency surveillance, the paper’s investigatory abilities in regard to state security operations became compromised. It said that at the time of the leaks, “Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger withstood intense pressure not to publish some of the Snowden revelations.” However, in March 2015, “the situation changed when the Guardian appointed a new editor, Katharine Viner, who had less experience than Rusbridger of dealing with the security services.” The investigation pointed out that Viner previously worked at the
fashion and entertainment magazine Cosmopolitan and had no history in national security reporting. According to insiders, she showed much less leadership during the Snowden affair.
Justin Schlosberg, a senior lecturer in journalism and media at the University of London, echoes this in a chapter in a forthcoming book about the paper: “Following the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the Guardian’s relationship with the security state began to look increasingly more cooperative than antagonistic,” he wrote, adding that “between 2016 and 2019, the paper was awarded three ‘exclusives’ with spy agency and counter-terror chiefs,” which were “largely devoid of the kind of interrogative scrutiny characteristic of the Rusbridger era.”
At the same time, Schlosberg noted, the paper moved to the right during the years Corbyn led the Labour Party (2015–20). “On the whole, comment pieces were aggressively hostile towards the Corbyn leadership,” Schlosberg wrote, and “the selection of issues and sources in news coverage overwhelmingly favored the accounts and agendas of Corbyn’s detractors.”
For some of the Guardian’s critics, this editorial switch can be felt today in much of its coverage and commentary of the Labour Party and in the Middle East. And that decline matters, because the Guardian has long been seen as providing much-needed nuance and broader reporting to the US newspaper market, and as a direly needed alternative to a British newspaper market that is dominated by nationalistic, Tory-aligned tabloids. Robinson’s firing is just the latest example of what these critics have seen for a while.
“What this shows is that even at the Guardian, the editors want to very tightly police what writers say on Israel/Palestine,” Robinson told FAIR, adding that its editors “want to make sure the criticism is carefully approved and stays only within certain bounds.”
Of course the paper has published criticism of Israel, Robinson said, but he noted, “It has also shown that it is willing to cede ground to those who treat legitimate criticisms of the country’s policies as bigoted.”
FAIR published an open letter (2/18/21) to the Guardian‘s John Mulholland calling on him to reinstate Nathan Robinson as a columnist. You can write to Mulholland at email@example.com or via Twitter: @jnmulholland. Remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
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.
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:
- Fact-checking Biden: Yesterday, CNN’s Brian Stelter spoke with his colleague Daniel Dale and Angie Holan, of PolitiFact, about the differences between fact-checking Biden and fact-checking Trump. “Biden speaks less, he tweets less, and he lies less when he talks and tweets. Trump was a unique case” Dale said. “But that doesn’t mean Biden is perfect—he sometimes exaggerates; he sometimes embellishes.” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, praised Dale’s “rational” approach to the Biden era. “No false equivalence. No free pass,” Rosen wrote. “Sense of proportion retained.”
- Merrick Garland: The Senate will today grill Merrick Garland, Biden’s pick for attorney general, ahead of a confirmation vote. Ahead of the hearings, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press ran the rule over Garland’s record on media law from his time as a judge. Garland “has taken strong stands on First Amendment issues,” the group writes, and his “decisions in FOIA cases show a commitment to government transparency, with only a few decisions favoring government arguments for withholding records.” In a recent case, he “reversed a lower court’s ruling that denied public access to certain electronic surveillance records.”
- Vivek Murthy: The Post’s Dan Diamond reports that Vivek Murthy—Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, who also faces a confirmation hearing this week—earned millions of dollars as a coronavirus consultant to private companies last year. Murthy’s recent ethics disclosures “caught the attention of longtime health policy hands, saying that Murthy has the most financial entanglements of any surgeon general pick in recent history,” Diamond writes, “and of watchdogs who raise questions about how credible he would be as a spokesperson on the pandemic response and presidential adviser.”
- The PEN is mightier than the sword: Last week, PEN America, a literary advocacy group, announced that it has settled a Trump-era case that it brought against the federal government in response to Trump’s threats to the media. Suzanne Nossel, the group’s CEO, said that the settlement “represents an important win for free speech, a free press, and the First Amendment” that will protect journalists going forward.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, said that power is almost fully restored in the state following last week’s winter storm, though many Texans still lack access to safe water and have been hit with excruciating energy bills. Kerry Flynn, of CNN, and Elahe Izadi, of the Post, both spoke with local reporters who have been living the crisis, as well as covering it. Also for the Post, Karen Attiah, who lives in the state, argues that it’s time to “bury the myth” of Texas exceptionalism; “leave it to a blackout to shine a big, bright spotlight on the problems lying deep in the heart of Texas,” she writes. And United Airlines is hunting for the staffer who leaked details of Ted Cruz’s trip to Cancún to the travel news site Skift. Such leaks, Politico’s Daniel Lippman writes, “are rare in the industry.”
- On Friday, the Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert reported that Patrick Soon-Shiong is considering selling the LA Times after growing “dissatisfied” with the pace of its digital growth and financial losses; he is said to believe that the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, both of which he acquired from Tribune Publishing in 2018, “would be better served if they were part of a larger media group,” and has considered transferring the latter title to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. (Soon-Shiong is still a shareholder in Tribune, and will soon have to ratify or block that company’s takeover by Alden.) Soon-Shiong said, in a tweet, that Alpert’s reporting is “inaccurate” and that he remains “committed” to the LA Times.
- Data collected by Condé Nast, Hearst, and Vice shows that, beyond a “few key hires,” diversity in their newsrooms has not markedly improved since last summer. The data, NBC’s Ahiza García-Hodges writes, shows that “minorities remain underrepresented at nearly every level of these companies and across departments. 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.”
- Five months after it launched, Column—a startup that helps news outlets process public notices, the legally-mandated government ads that are an increasingly important revenue source for smaller papers as commercial advertising dries up—has already formed partnerships with hundreds of publications, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire reports. Its clients now include McClatchy, Wick Communications, and Ogden Newspapers.
- This morning, Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based group that supports the journalism of threatened reporters, launched #AmplifyRappler—a series of videos signal-boosting the work of Rappler, a news site in the Philippines whose founder, Maria Ressa, has faced intensifying harassment from the authorities. By sharing the videos around the world, the campaign intends to send the message that “Rappler and Maria Ressa are not alone.”
- On Friday, officials in Hong Kong said that RTHK, the territory’s editorially-independent public broadcaster, should be subjected to increased government oversight, and announced that the head of RTHK will leave his post ahead of schedule, to be replaced by a civil servant. The moves, Vivian Wang writes for the Times, further signal “the fate of independent journalism under an intensifying crackdown on dissent” in Hong Kong.
- In other press-freedom news, a court in Belarus sentenced two journalists who were arrested while filming anti-regime protests, in November, to two-year prison terms, and a court in Iraqi Kurdistan sentenced two journalists to six-year terms, also following their coverage of protests. There was better news in Algeria, where President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pardoned the jailed journalist Khaled Drareni alongside dozens of activists.
- In France, Florence Porcel, a writer and YouTuber, alleged that Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, a well-known TV anchor, raped her, in 2004 and 2009, in his office at the TV network and at a production company where he worked. Prosecutors are investigating the allegations, which Poivre d’Arvor denies. He says he will file a defamation complaint against Porcel. Le Parisien was the first news organization to report the story.
- And Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist who advises the British government, told lawmakers that the media’s shaming of people who went to the beach last summer had no basis in fact. “There was an outcry about this,” he said, even though “there were no outbreaks linked to public beaches. There’s never been a COVID-19 outbreak linked to a beach, ever, anywhere in the world, to the best of my knowledge.”
The Economist (2/15/20) ran a brief article last year with a startling headline: “Immigration to America Is Down. Wages Are Up. Are the Two Related?” Maybe, the article’s anonymous author answered, at least for the short term.
A few on the right were quick to cite this conclusion as support for former President Trump’s efforts to deter immigration. “Amazing how that works,” Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted. “Thanks @realDonaldTrump.” Breitbart’s Neil Munro (2/19/20) used the article to claim that immigration restrictions were “driving up blue-collar wages, and those extra wages are stabilizing the US economy.”
The Economist article didn’t get much public attention beyond these references. But we can expect more claims of the sort as conservative politicians and media react to Biden administration moves to address wage disparity and to reverse some of Trump’s xenophobic policies. A preview came on February 16, when Utah Sen. Mitt Romney tweeted that he and a fellow Republican, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, were introducing legislation to raise the federal minimum wage—but only in exchange for further restrictions on undocumented immigrants seeking jobs.
“We must protect American workers,” Romney explained.Wages go up…
The Economist’s argument is based on a pay increase that low-wage workers received during the Trump years. Nominal wages for US workers without a high school diploma jumped by nearly 10% in 2019, according to the article, while most workers have only received an increase of 2–3% in recent years.
Why would low-wage workers be getting a disproportionate boost? The obvious answer is that state and local governments have been raising their minimum wage requirements over the past few years. The Brookings Institute finds that low-paid workers in states with sizeable minimum wage increases have seen their real pay rise three times as much as similar workers in states that failed to raise the minimum. (Brookings cites tightening job markets in those states as an additional reason for the increase.)
The Economist admits that minimum wage hikes may be one of “many factors” for wage increases, but it focuses on a different explanation. Net immigration to the United States (the number of immigrants entering minus the number leaving) fell to 595,000 in 2019, the lowest number for the decade. So slower growth in the immigrant population could have cut down the number of low-wage immigrants competing for jobs with low-wage US-born workers, and this would then drive up wages for the latter group.
There’s a big problem with this argument, however: the lack of any evidence that Trump’s policy changes significantly reduced the number of low-wage immigrant workers.…when immigration goes down?
Undocumented immigrants are disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs. As of 2014 undocumented immigrants only made up about 5% of the total workforce but represented some 31% of drywall installers, 24% of maids and housekeepers, and 20% of grounds maintenance workers. Documented immigrants also work in these jobs (as do many US citizens), but they often find more remunerative employment.
The official US immigration system, meanwhile, favors wealthier, better-educated applicants; nearly half of the foreign-born authorized to enter the United States over the last decade have a college degree, a higher rate than the US-born population.
These better-paid authorized immigrants seem to have been the ones most impacted by Trump’s immigration policies (Documented, 11/3/20). A large part of the reduction in recent immigration results from the former administration’s assault on legal channels for entering the country and acquiring lawful residence: the “Muslim ban,” the drastic reduction of refugee resettlement, the de facto dismantling of the asylum system, and the new bureaucratic hurdles in the visa application process.
In contrast, Trump did less to lower the number of undocumented workers. As the Migration Policy Institute has noted, “The Trump administration deported less than half as many unauthorized immigrants during its first three fiscal years than did the Obama administration during the same timeframe.” The undocumented population may even have risen slightly from 2017 to 2018.What really works
In any case, the Economist’s argument depends on a supposed correlation between the number of low-wage immigrants and the pay of low-wage US-born workers. But most of recent history doesn’t show any such correlation. The Pew Research Center (8/20/20) reports that unauthorized immigration soared in the late 1990s, from 5.7 million to 8.6 million, while the period from 2010 to 2014 brought a small decline.
Did low-wage workers lose out in the first period and make gains in the second? Not at all. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, wages for the bottom 10th percentile of US workers rose in the late 1990s, and fell during the years from 2010 to 2014.
It’s not really surprising that the Economist chose to focus on immigration policy rather than minimum wage regulations as an explanation for pay increases. Corporate media tend to be critical of calls to lift the wage floor, often citing exaggerated claims about unemployment and dire but unfounded warnings about the destruction of restaurants and other small businesses. “A $15 Minimum Wage Would Hurt Those It’s Meant to Help,” an opinion piece on CNN Business (2/9/21) advises.
What’s even worse, for both Trump backers and corporate publicists, is the way the wage increases were won: through campaigns by the low-wage workers themselves (New York, 12/1/18). Groups like Fight For 15 organized, marched and walked out—often with strong participation by immigrant workers (The Nation, 5/1/17)—to push state legislatures and city councils into doing the right thing. These efforts are continuing: a number of fast-food workers held strikes on February 16 to demand a $15 federal minimum wage (Guardian, 2/16/21).
For years, the media narrative has been that repressive immigration policies—billions spent on immigration enforcement, families torn apart, thousands dying on the southwestern border—will somehow lead to wage hikes. They haven’t, and they won’t. What really works is organization and class struggle.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s moment as the “hero” of the Covid-19 crisis is fading, with revelations (New York Times, 2/12/21) that his administration covered up the scope of the coronavirus death toll in the state’s nursing homes, as one Cuomo aide “admitted that the state had withheld data because it feared an investigation by the Trump Justice Department.” The anger at the governor is bipartisan; legislators on both sides of the aisle are discussing curtailing his powers, and even impeachment (City and State, 2/12/21).
It seems like yesterday when Cuomo, the son of legendary New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, was in the spotlight as the leader who rose to the occasion in cinematic fashion. Marie Claire (3/26/20) made him “America’s Boyfriend,” the powerful voice in command while then-President Donald Trump stumbled over his own narcissism. NPR (3/24/20) said his supposed qualities—“decisiveness, taking charge, listening to the experts and sticking to the facts—are playing well in a public health crisis,” while the Guardian (3/23/20) called Cuomo an “alternative guiding force” for the nation. CNN (3/22/20) praised his press briefings as offering “something simple and, to many viewers, deeply necessary: a sense that someone is in charge, even if the news is bad.” The New York Times (3/16/20) made him out as the benevolent dictator the people needed:
Mr. Cuomo has emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis…. Even many of his critics say the very qualities that make him abrasive in ordinary interactions are serving him well now.
It doesn’t hurt when you have a brother who is a CNN host who interviews you constantly, and goes on to say you’re the best in the country (USA Today, 6/25/20).
The image of Cuomo as the leader in a time of need scored him a book deal about (as the subtitle put it) “Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic.” His press conferences even won him an Emmy Award (Guardian, 11/20/20), although now some politicians are calling for the prize to be revoked (New York Post, 2/12/21). These laurels came even as New York persistently had the second-highest per capita Covid death toll of any state, with nearly 1 in every 400 residents dying from the disease.
The fawning was extremely frustrating for many journalists following Cuomo, as they had reported deeply on his commitment to austerity, corruption and anti-labor posturing. Even as Cuomo was elevated as the “anti-Trump” in the media, some reporters were able to foresee the problems we see now. Theodore Hamm in the Indypendent (4/23/20) was, perhaps, the first journalist to spot the link between Cuomo and nursing homes, and the Wall Street Journal (5/14/20) called Cuomo’s nursing home policies a “fatal error.” David Sirota (Guardian, 5/26/20) followed up, and Ross Barkan (The Nation, 3/30/20) reported on how Cuomo’s healthcare policies had left the state in such a vulnerable position.
For journalists who have covered Cuomo’s tumultuous governorship, the recent revelations are a return from the adoring media frenzy of a year ago (documented at the time by FAIR—3/30/20) to the Cuomo they remember: a corrupt bully who perhaps embodied the Trumpian spirit as much as anyone else in power today.
For example, after Cuomo set up the Moreland Commission in 2013 to root out corruption, the New York Times (7/23/14) reported that a
three-month examination…found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.
One of Cuomo’s closest aides was taken down on federal bribery charges (New York Times, 9/20/18), and the “principle architect” of one of the governor’s biggest development projects was convicted in a “bid-rigging scheme that steered hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts to favored companies in Buffalo and Syracuse” (New York Times, 7/12/18). The Glen Falls Post-Star (7/22/18), an upstate paper, said the capital of Albany had become the “scandal capital of the country” under Cuomo.
Before the pandemic, Cuomo was notorious for keeping the press corps at arm’s length, at one point only holding press conferences over the phone, in which his aides picked which reporters got to ask questions and often planted questions themselves (Daily News, 12/7/17). The situation left the public in the dark, according to one editorial board in Schenectady (Daily Gazette, 12/11/17), which said that for six months, journalists “have not been able to ask Cuomo directly and collectively about a number of important issues,” which included “the corruption scandals, the failure of the state’s economic development programs, state taxes and other issues vital to New Yorkers.”
Contrast this with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He was cantankerous, thin-skinned and imperious, and always feisty with reporters, but even he found a way to do direct, in-person briefings nearly every day.
Then, of course, there is the governor’s long war on the public sector. Cuomo cut pension benefits for government workers, which state AFL-CIO president Mario Cilento (Reuters, 3/15/12) said was another example of how “middle-class New Yorkers will pay the price for Wall Street’s misdeeds.” As this writer noted in the Brooklyn Rail (11/12), Cuomo used the threat of layoffs to force “the state’s two biggest unions—the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF)—to settle contracts that provide 0% wage increases in their first three years.” Cuomo was sued in 2013 over withholding $250 million in school funding, a move parents and education advocates said denied “kids a constitutional right to a sound public education” (Daily News, 2/6/13).
“I am gratified that the wide-scale recognition of Cuomo’s failure has come this soon; my fear was that it would come much later or it wouldn’t come at all,” Barkan told FAIR.
For Barkan, the press obsession with Cuomo one year ago was similar to what he saw in the press’s inability to hold Robert Moses accountable, as documented in the quintessential tome on New York politics, The Power Broker. Barkan recalled that a year ago, when Cuomo received so much “great praise…I was surprised initially, because it was so counter to that I was perceiving.” Barkan noted, “By no metric did New York handle this crisis well.”
Barkan points out that Cuomo benefited from being a perceived contrast to Trump’s incompetence, and enjoyed being in the nation’s densest media market–after all, Barkan notes, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee handled the pandemic far better (KOIN, 5/8/20), but has never received the level of national media love Cuomo has enjoyed.
Also, Cuomo’s bravado and toughness, along with his dynastic name and unrealized rumors of a place in a Democratic presidential administration, in opposition to the ineffectual nature of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, made Cuomo a figure that press could deify in a crisis. Cuomo “projects power,” Barkan said, “and journalists have a fetish for that.”
This week on CounterSpin: One of the more hopeful things you might not have heard about is the revival in the House of Representatives of the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal, or FAIR, Act, that would ban those ubiquitous small-print “agreements” that annul critical worker and consumer rights, like the ability to bring class action lawsuits. Prominent proponents include Google employees and former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson; but as bill sponsor Hank Johnson of Georgia explained, it’s really about narrowing the “massive power differential between soulless corporations and individuals just trying to get by.” We get some background on forced arbitration and why it matters from previous CounterSpin conversations with Celine McNicholas from the Economic Policy Institute and Joanne Doroshow from the Center for Justice and Democracy.
An important if often hidden engine of the corporate corrosion of worker/consumer rights has been the National Labor Relations Board, the federal enforcer of labor law. It seems like change is afoot: Biden apparently called for the resignation of the Board’s general counsel, famously anti-union Peter Robb, 23 minutes after becoming president, fired him when he refused to resign, and then fired the next Trump appointee who took the job. We talked about the Trump-era NLRB while it was happening with Cornell University’s Kate Bronfrenbrenner. We hear part of that conversation this week.
An epic winter storm spiraled across the South this week. In Texas, the temperature plummeted, driving demand for electricity; supply systems froze; soon, the power went out. As of Tuesday lunchtime, more than four million people had been affected. Newsrooms were hit, too: KFDX, a TV station in Wichita Falls, went dark; the printing facilities of the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle suffered outages. “Even during Hurricane Harvey, our facility never lost power and we never stopped producing the print edition,” staffers at the Chronicle noted, “but each weather emergency brings its own twists.” Other papers cancelled deliveries because of dangerous conditions on the roads; the San Antonio Express-News, which, since last month, has been printed nearly two-hundred miles away, in Houston, is still experiencing delays. Outlets including the American-Statesman and the Texas Tribune have been communicating with readers via text, as internet access is sporadic. Reporters are helping vulnerable neighbors, fixing broken pipes, and charging their phones in their cars. “Melting snow to fill up my toilet tank while listening to a @PUCTX meeting,” Lauren McGaughy, of the Dallas Morning News, tweeted, referring to the state’s Public Utility Commission. “Life of a Texas journalist, February 2021.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Greg Abbott, the state’s governor, went on WFAA, in Dallas, to describe the problem. Natural gas, he said, was “frozen in the pipeline and frozen in the rig.” Then Abbott visited Sean Hannity, on Fox, and blamed renewables: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” At a press conference on Wednesday—his first of the crisis, more than sixty hours after the blackouts began—Abbott changed his message again. But his Fox comments nonetheless contributed to a right-wing anti-climate crusade; according to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, between Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon, talking heads on Fox News and Fox Business dissed green energy nearly one-hundred-and-thirty times. “Unbeknownst to most people, the Green New Deal came to Texas,” Tucker Carlson said. “The power grid in the state became totally reliant on windmills, then it got cold and the windmills broke.” (In reality, Texas is much more reliant on fossil fuels than on renewables, and the failure was system-wide.) It wasn’t just Fox: under the headline “Texas spins into the wind,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board accused “the media” of falling for “climate-change conformity.” As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote, the default crisis response of right-wing politicians, and their boosters in the press, is “to increasingly retreat from real policy debates into an alternate information universe.”
New from CJR: The preoccupation of ‘wonks’
Yesterday, a creature from the alternate information universe became a crossover star. Photos appeared to show Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, boarding a flight to Cancún while his state suffered. David Shuster, a TV journalist, confirmed that the man was indeed Cruz, as did various travel journalists and political reporters. (“The camera-phone crowdsourcing involved in every aspect of this story is just amazing,” Katie Rogers, of the New York Times, observed.) Cruz was forced to turn around, come home, and comment: he admitted to the trip, though he claimed that he was just trying to be “a good dad” to his daughters, who wanted to go while they were off from school. “It’s chutzpah,” Dana Bash said, on CNN. Journalists managed to fill in the finer details of Cruz’s itinerary; the Times obtained text messages that his wife, Heidi, sent to friends and neighbors outlining the family’s plot to flee their “FREEZING” home for a Mexican Ritz-Carlton. The senator conceded that he had planned to stay in Cancún through the weekend.
Cruz’s selfishness brought the Texas story into sharp political focus; last night, it was the angle that most of the prime-time cable shows led with. Some segments described Cruz’s trip as a “blunder” or a “gaffe”; the better ones used it to illustrate structural failings of leadership, institutions, and infrastructure. “Governing is not posting, it’s not podcasting, it’s not cable-news anchoring,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said. “Both my parents worked as civil servants in city government, and I have a cable-news show, and they had harder jobs than I do. What we’ve seen this week in Texas is a total failure of governance. And it’s not just Ted Cruz.” Coverage also discussed the storm in the context of the climate crisis, highlighting long-term concerns with the electric grid. State officials said yesterday that Texas had been “seconds and minutes” away from a months-long catastrophe—an image even scarier than Ted Cruz on the beach.
The environmental disaster intersected with the coronavirus, as power and water problems have forced some hospitals to turn away patients and, as several outlets have reported, compounded pandemic-induced financial misery. The COVID Tracking Project pointed out yesterday, with reference to other recent storms, “if people are having trouble moving around the city because of a storm, they are also less likely to seek out testing or even seek medical attention,” but “because authorities are still able to report something, the interruption is not immediately obvious.” Vaccine rollout was disrupted, too. On the whole, however, COVID has been less ubiquitous than Cruz in the topline national framing—which reflects a trend, over recent months, of pandemic news feeling siloed from other urgent problems.
Local journalists are covering the interlocking crises: The Chronicle homepage leads this morning with a story on the storm’s growing death toll; the American-Statesman leads with an article about COVID vaccine and testing delays. The Texas Tribune’s top story centers the impact of the storm on Black and Hispanic Texans, communities that have already been hit hardest by the pandemic. Cruz is much less prominent, though the editorial board of the Chronicle did call on him to resign—the second time this year it has done so. “As Texans froze, Ted Cruz got a ticket to paradise,” the headline reads. “Paradise can have him.”
Below, more on Texas and the storm:
- The death toll: Officials believe that the number of deaths linked to the storm and the outages is likely higher than the figures that are being reported in the media, but, as the Daily Beast points out, “there’s no way of understanding in real time how many people are dying as a result of, for example, hypothermia or because they had existing diseases and couldn’t reach their medications.” Juliette Kayyem, a former national-security official, told the Beast that the only solution will be to conduct “an excess death analysis—to figure out how many more deaths occurred over the last several days than occurred, say, in 2019.”
- Not just Texas: The storm this week battered other states, too; yesterday, President Biden approved emergency declarations for Oklahoma and Louisiana. Earlier in the week, Jason Collington, editor of the Tulsa World, spoke with Poynter’s Amaris Castillo about disruptions to the paper’s normal distribution schedule. “We’re working to get our presses and everyone working earlier, so we can get the press started earlier, which means carriers have to come in earlier,” he said. “You move one thing, and then you got to move four other groups of people.”
- The climate crisis in Texas: On Wednesday, David Schechter, of WFAA, in Dallas, wrote for CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project explaining how his local coverage of the climate crisis has evolved over time. “On the rare occasions when I absolutely had to report about climate, I found myself defaulting to both-sides-ism—saying that ‘climate change is controversial’ and giving both sides equal weight in my story,” he wrote. “With a little training, I’ve found, it’s possible to see how climate change intersects with important local issues.”
- A new presence: Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez reports on the impending launch of the Fort Worth Report, a nonprofit outlet in Fort Worth that will aim to, among other things, produce nuanced coverage of communities of color in the city. “We’re not going to be doing police blotter news,” Chris Cobler, the Report’s CEO and publisher, said. “I think you write about those issues, like institutional racism, from a deeper standpoint, get the context to it, and make sure you have the voices of all the community involved in it.”
Other notable stories:
- The Washington Post published “A mass-casualty event every day,” a package, reported between January 11 and January 13, that brings together stories about coronavirus deaths. “In a nation still partially shut down, those deaths often took place out of sight. But in hospitals and funeral homes and living rooms and cemeteries across America, the torrent of death was inescapable,” the package begins. “On three of the deadliest days in the deadliest month, Washington Post reporters and photographers fanned out across the nation to capture the stories of the people and places closest to the lives lost.”
- This week—after Reply All, a podcast made by Gimlet, published the second episode of “The Test Kitchen,” a miniseries about race and workplace toxicity at Bon Appétit—Eric Eddings, a former Gimlet staffer, wrote on Twitter that Sruthi Pinnamaneni, who reported the miniseries, and P.J. Vogt, a host of Reply All, “contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet,” including by opposing a union drive. Pinnamaneni and Vogt apologized; now, per Vulture’s Nicholas Quah, they will both permanently step away from Reply All, and Gimlet bosses will “discuss what comes next for the miniseries.”
- Last spring, as journalists fawned over Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, he gave a series of playful interviews to his brother, Chris Cuomo, of CNN. As I noted on Tuesday, the governor, who now stands accused of covering up nursing-home deaths, hasn’t appeared on his brother’s show in a while; Chris Cuomo hasn’t covered the controversy at all. A CNN spokesperson has since said that a rule established in 2013 bars Chris from covering Andrew; in the early months of the pandemic, CNN decided to suspend the rule given the “significant human interest” of the brothers’ story, but it is now back in effect.
- Poynter’s Doris Truong writes that stories about the death of Rush Limbaugh too often downplayed his racism. “To neglect Limbaugh’s long history of othering and gaslighting people of color is to let him continue to control the narrative,” she writes. “The truth about someone’s life isn’t necessarily what their most ardent supporters want to acknowledge — that’s what separates a news article from an obituary paid for by loved ones.”
- This week, Voto Latino and Media Matters for America jointly launched a “Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab” aimed at tackling Spanish-language disinformation campaigns about the pandemic, politics, and other topics. Tom Perez, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, will serve as co-chair alongside Maria Teresa Kumar, of Voto Latino, and Angelo Carusone, of Media Matters. NBC’s Jonathan Allen has more.
- Vanity Fair’s Tom Kludt profiles Briahna Joy Gray, a journalist and former spokesperson for Bernie Sanders who wants a reset in relations between progressive lawmakers and the media. “There is not enough coordination between left media in terms of messaging and having that kind of discipline that you need to get your ideas out there,” Gray says. “The best people at this are the people in the right-wing media. They are in lockstep.”
- CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Anthony Nadler, a media communications scholar, about the limitations of the “news ecosystem” metaphor. “The metaphor really invites us to think of the system as a bunch of individual actors competing against each other,” Nadler says, while downplaying “modes of thinking that are more about centralized planning or collective effort.” (You can subscribe to Harris’s newsletter on the news business here.)
- For Nieman Reports, Clio Chang explores what the shuttering of physical newsrooms means for reporters who are just starting their careers. “For many, losing a newsroom means also losing the type of serendipitous conversations that can really help a young reporter who might not have a big rolodex of sources or the same community connections,” Chang writes. (For more on this subject, read Ruth Margalit in CJR.)
- And Salon’s Roger Sollenberger lays out an “unusual and at times suspicious level of engagement” between Hannity, of Fox, and the coach of his son’s college tennis team. The relationship appears to have triggered a federal investigation, of which Hannity denied any knowledge. The case was closed without indictments, but it nonetheless shines a light, Sollenberger writes, into “the many legal gray zones” of college athletics.
We write in support of Nathan Robinson, founder of Current Affairs magazine, who was fired as a columnist for The Guardian for a joking tweet critical of U.S. military aid to Israel. This is shocking behavior for a publication that has earned the respect and loyalty of millions of readers around the world for courageous journalism that has often offended the sensibilities of the powerful.
The paper has not denied that it terminated Robinson’s column over the tweet and has only said that it did not technically “fire” Robinson because it does not offer its columnists contracts. The Guardian’s US editor, John Mulholland, sent Robinson a “confidential” message saying that while Robinson was “free” as an opinion columnist to speak his mind, his tweet had antisemitic connotations. Though Robinson immediately deleted the tweet and apologized for violating the Guardian’s unwritten policy, the paper immediately stopped accepting his pitches before discontinuing his column entirely. It was made clear by an editor that this was a direct result of the tweet criticizing U.S. military support for Israel.
The Guardian has been criticized before for its casual use of antisemitism accusations against critics of Israel. We strongly condemn antisemitism. We also strongly condemn the deployment of the baseless charges of antisemitism to silence criticism of Israeli policy or U.S. support of that policy. Regardless of one’s opinions on the Middle East, everyone should be distressed by The Guardian’s act of blatant censorship.
Aside from the loss of Robinson’s contributions to the Guardian, we are worried that this action will have a chilling effect on other media workers, who will be under increased pressure to avoid straying from orthodoxy lest they lose their jobs. The ability to harshly criticize the policies of powerful governments is a basic freedom and is essential to preventing atrocities. Even if the Guardian regularly publishes material critical of Israel’s policies, which it does, by not making it clear what writers are and are not allowed to say, the paper chills the ability of its contributors to comment openly and freely on the issue.
The Guardian’s termination of Robinson has evoked widespread criticism. His firing has sent a message to writers at The Guardian and elsewhere that they will be punished if they post unapproved opinions on Israel. We demand that Robinson be reinstated and that Mulholland apologize for this crime against free expression. The Guardian must make clear that its writers have the freedom to comment critically on Israel without suffering career consequences.
Support for Palestinian rights and criticism of US policy toward Israel can’t be an exception to free speech.
Liza Featherstone, Jacobin & The Nation
Doug Henwood, Behind the News
Noam Chomsky, Laureate Professor of Linguistics, University of Arizona
Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University
Johann Hari, author, Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections
Ilan Pappé, Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies, University of Exeter
Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford
Dina Matar, Director, Center for Palestine Studies, SOAS, University of London
Nur Masalha, Professor, SOAS, University of London
Maximillian Alvarez, editor in chief, The Real News Network
Jason Stanley, Professor of Philosophy, Yale University
Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College
Greg Grandin, C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, Yale University
Noura Erakat, Rutgers University
Katie Halper, Rolling Stone & The Katie Halper Show
Sam Seder, The Majority Report
Katha Pollitt, The Nation
Cornel West, Harvard University
Glenn Greenwald, co-founder, The Intercept
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Meagan Day, Jacobin
Molly Crabapple, artist
Diana Buttu, Institute for Middle East Understanding
Andrew Cockburn, Harper’s
Steven Lukes, Professor of Sociology, New York University
Ben Burgis, Jacobin and Rutgers University
Robby Soave, Reason
Ryan Grim, The Intercept
David Palumbo-Liu, Stanford University
David Klion, Jewish Currents
Jonathan Cook, former Guardian journalist
Samuel Moyn, Professor of History, Yale University
Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science, Hobart & William Smith Colleges
Natasha Lennard, The Intercept
Ken Klippenstein, The Intercept
Osita Nwanevu, New Republic
Briahna Joy Gray, Bad Faith, former press secretary for Bernie Sanders
Ryan Cooper, The Week
Jim Naureckas, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Janine Jackson, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Julie Hollar, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Luke Savage, Jacobin
Branko Marcetic, Jacobin
Jonathan Rosenhead, Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics
Ana Kasparian, The Young Turks
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
James Livingston, Rutgers University
Michael Moore, filmmaker
Featured image: Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs (left) and John Mulholland of The Guardian.