One of the notable things about the last Congressional hearing with executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter this summer—the final hearing in a fifteen-month-long investigation by the House Committee on Antitrust—was how intelligent most of the questioning was. But a separate hearing on Wednesday with Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google, was an unfortunate return to the kind of circus act we’ve grown used to on these subjects: a hearing about an important topic that degenerated into grandstanding by politicians who either don’t understand the issues, or were happy to pretend in order to get video clips of themselves grilling a trio of billionaires. All of which isn’t that surprising, given that the impetus for the hearing was the alleged “censorship” by Twitter and Facebook of a New York Post story, a story involving dubious claims about Joe Biden’s son that various conservative players tried desperately to turn into a Clinton-emails-style election scandal.
The showboating started before the actual testimony got under way, with a series of promotional tweets from Sen. Ted Cruz that made the hearing seem like a wrestling match. Cruz wasted no time trying to amp up the rhetoric inside the hearing itself, asking Dorsey: “Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” He went on to accuse the company of being “a Democratic super PAC, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs,” and after the hearing was finished, he accused Dorsey of lying under oath for saying that Twitter users were now free to post links to the Post story, which Cruz said he was unable to do. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, meanwhile, spent her time at the hearing asking Pichai whether a software engineer who had criticized Blackburn in the past still had a job (the Google executive said he didn’t know).
Another strain of questioning focused on Twitter’s alleged “censorship” of Trump’s tweets, which seemed to be a blanket term that included everything from putting a warning label on a tweet with misinformation to the company’s pre-election policy of encouraging users to read news stories before tweeting links to them. Why did Twitter label Trump’s tweets, a number of members asked, but leave up tweets by the Ayatollah Khamenei in which the Iranian cleric threatened to destroy Israel? Or a tweet from a Chinese politician accusing the US of causing the coronavirus pandemic? About ninety-five percent of the hearing was theater, said Brian Fung of CNN. “Lawmakers are dug in, the companies have their talking points, and the public enjoys seeing CEOs squirm under the spotlight. That’s pretty much it. Congress has always been theater, so we’re in pretty much the same place we were a year ago.”
Related: At Voters’ Service
“There’s simply no reason to have this hearing just prior to the election, except that it may intimidate the platforms, who have shown themselves to be vulnerable to political blunt force in the past,” Sen. Brian Schatz said on Twitter about the hearing. “This is bullying, and it’s for electoral purposes,” he added in a video message. “I’ll be glad to participate in good faith bipartisan hearings on these issues when the election is over. This is not that.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, accused Republicans of politicizing “what should actually not be a partisan topic,” and Sen. Tammy Duckworth said members of Congress were “placing the selfish interests of Donald Trump ahead of the health of our democracy.” Sen. Mark Warner released a statement saying he was saddened by the fact that some members “have joined in the Trump Administration’s cynical and concerted effort to bully platforms.”
In their opening statements, the leaders of Twitter and Google both warned Congress of the dangers of removing the protections of Section 230, which a number of experts have pointed out would likely make their moderation even more heavy-handed rather than less. Zuckerberg, however, seemed to meet the members of the committee halfway by agreeing that “Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.” Why would he do this? As more than one industry observer pointed out, the best way to protect Facebook’s dominance over social networking is to encourage the development of regulations that only it and a handful of other multibillion-dollar companies are able to afford or manage. “Do you want to give up on competition goals in favor of content moderation goals? Then you should definitely endorse whatever CDA 230 reform Facebook does,” said Daphne Keller, the director of platform regulation at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.
Here’s more on the tech giants:
- Cow them: Danielle Citron, a professor of law at Boston University and vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, and Spencer Overton, a professor of law at George Washington University and president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, argue that despite the grandstanding at the tech hearings, “the real threat to American democracy is not censorship of conservative perspectives on social networks, but coordinated disinformation campaigns, both domestic and foreign, that sow division, confusion, and distrust.” Senate Republicans “don’t want answers from the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, they want to cow them,” the authors add.
- Echo chamber: A new study from Media Matters looked at Facebook pages that regularly post about American political news and found that right-leaning pages outperformed left-leaning pages. “Right-leaning pages consistently earned more average weekly interactions than left-leaning pages, while both types of pages earned similar engagement rates—a measure of performance that accounts for interactions,” the study found. A separate study found that Facebook creates an echo chamber for news consumption, and that conservative users are more likely to become polarized than left-leaning users. CJR is talking about this study all this week with researchers Steven Johnson and Brent Kitchens on our Galley discussion platform.
- Death of local: Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, released a report in advance of Wednesday’s hearing that argues the anti-competitive and monopolistic activities of the major tech platforms have led to the death of local journalism. “News media, just like other media, are going through a transformation to the digital age,” Cantwell told the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. “In that transformation, it drastically changed the price of advertising. Local news is trying to adjust to that (and) while they’re making this transition into very disruptive, hard economic times, you also have unfair practices by a concentration of power.”
Other notable stories:
- Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, revealed on Wednesday that he is the anonymous author who wrote a New York Times op-ed and a book detailing his misgivings about the Trump administration. Taylor said he understood why some criticized his decision to remain anonymous, but that he chose to do so because it “forced the President to answer them directly on their merits” rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks. White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Taylor was a low-level, disgruntled former staffer who “is a liar and a coward,” and that he was fired for incompetence. Media watchers, meanwhile, noted that he lied twice when asked on CNN whether he was Anonymous.
- City Pages, the free weekly newspaper that chronicled Twin Cities culture and politics for forty-one years, will stop publishing and close immediately, owner Star Tribune Media announced Wednesday. The company said it could no longer sustain City Pages after the coronavirus outbreak forced closings and downsizing of the events, nightclubs, bars and restaurants that were its chief advertisers. Thirty people are expected to lose their jobs, and Minneapolis-St. Paul will join the growing list of US cities that no longer have an alternative weekly newspaper.
- A regulatory firewall intended to protect the government-funded Voice of America and its affiliated newsrooms from political interference has been swept aside by the chief executive of the federal agency, a Trump appointee, according to a report from NPR’s David Folkenflik. Michael Pack, who took over leadership of the US Agency for Global Media in June, says he acted to eliminate policies that were “harmful to the agency and the U.S. national interest.” Pack, who dismissed the heads of all the agency’s broadcasters when he took office in June, argued that the rules had interfered with his mandate “to support the foreign policy of the United States.”
- Audio giant Spotify came under fire after podcast host Joe Rogan welcomed notorious disinformation peddler Alex Jones of Infowars onto his program, allowing Jones to spread conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden’s connections to Ukraine and how vaccines can allegedly give people polio. Spotify recently signed Rogan to a syndication deal that is estimated to be worth about $100 million. According to BuzzFeed, an internal email told Spotify executives to defend having Jones on the program by saying “it’s important to have diverse voices and points of view on our platform.” Spotify removed Jones’ own podcast from its platform in 2018.
- A group of digital news outlets in India have agreed to form a collective called the Digipub News India Foundation, which they say will promote best practices in the industry and hold its members to “the highest standards in journalism,” according to a news release. The group said its creation was necessary because the “pursuits and interests of legacy media may not always be the same as that of digital media—especially in regards to regulation, business models, technology and structures.”
- Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes about how Facebook seems happy to tip the scales in favor of conservative news outlets like Breitbart and Ben Shapiro’s page, while down-ranking news sites like Courier Newsroom, a network of local sites that is funded by a progressive political entity called Acronym, and the left-leaning investigative magazine Mother Jones. Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones reported last week that Facebook took specific steps to suppress her organization’s journalism. “Average traffic from Facebook to our content decreased 37 percent,” after algorithm changes that Zuckerberg signed off on in 2018, she wrote.
- TikTok announced on Wednesday that it is expanding the resources provided in its in-app election guide in the US, to include direct access to sites that help users get information about polling locations, and those that help people having voting difficulties, according to a report by TechCrunch. The company also said it’s working with the Associated Press to provide access to an interactive map that will show live results for both federal and state elections, as well as ballot initiatives. This map will be updated with live results starting on Election Day, the company said.
- Nieman Journalism Lab reports that City University of New York has revamped its Journalism Creators Program and made it one hundred days long (down from four months) and fully remote. The program is supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project as well as scholarship funding from media companies such as Substack, LION Publishers, and Media Lab Bayern. The cost of the program is now $4,000 per student, down from over $10,000 for out-of-state participants.
The headline news from President Donald Trump’s 60 Minutes interview, taped on October 20, was that he walked out and ended the interview early, a fact CBS played up ahead of the October 25 airing of the show.
It was on brand for both Trump and the network. For Trump, it supported the image of the tough businessman who doesn’t play by Washington’s rules. It enabled CBS, meanwhile, to look like hard-hitting journalists.
The gulf between brand and reality, though, was significant in both cases.
Lesley Stahl started the interview by asking, “Are you ready for some tough questions?”—instead of actually asking any tough questions. It was hard not to feel some sympathy for her, given that even her softest softball questions went unanswered and/or were interrupted while Trump complained, “You’re so negative,” and lobbed one outsized lie after another at her. She did try at times to correct his falsehoods, but mostly she just gave up on one subject after another and moved on.
But as anyone who has raised children or puppies knows, if you give in to the bad behavior, it is bound to be repeated. Stahl’s first substantive question (I use that term loosely) was “Why do you want to be president again?” To which Trump responded:
Because we’ve done a great job, and it’s not finished yet. And when I finish, this country will be in a position like it hasn’t been maybe ever. The economy is already roaring back. And—other people aren’t going to bring it back, certainly the person that we’re dealing with is not going to bring it back. They’re going to raise taxes.
This response begs for follow up. How exactly have you done a “great job”? How can an economy with staggering food and housing insecurity, tens of millions unemployed, and crushing impacts on BIPOC communities be described as “roaring back”? And perhaps most importantly, what is your vision for a country “in a position like it hasn’t been maybe ever”? Yet Stahl didn’t engage with any of it, and thus set the terms for the rest of the interview— that Trump’s claims, no matter how outrageous, would go unchallenged.
Later, when Stahl tried to counter Trump’s assertion that “we created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” saying, “You know that’s not true,” it was futile. And by the time she was arguing with him about whether he said, “Suburban women, will you please like me?” her counter to his fictional great economy had dwindled to “the economy has kind of stalled a little bit.”
As of mid-October, 10.3% of US adults had not had enough food in the last week, compared to 3.7% of adults who reported not having enough food sometime during all of 2019. In households with children, that number rises to 14%. These numbers bear witness to a massive increase in grotesque economic violence; and when considered alongside the fact that US billionaires increased their already obscene wealth by $845 billion during the first six months of the pandemic, there simply are no words to properly describe the depths of this depravity.
But here was Stahl, trying to keep the toddler in chief from throwing a tantrum by sweeping all this under the rug: kind of…stalled…a little bit.
Instead of actual tough questions that cited facts and demanded accountability for economic hardship; or human rights abuses by police and immigration authorities alike; or environmental regulations that are speeding global warming, extinction and mass deaths, Stahl asked inane questions like, “Can you characterize your supporters?” and “Do you think that your tweets and your name-calling are turning people off?” and made comments like, “I wonder if you think that masks don’t work.”
There are many other problems with this interview, but the absolute worst part was this comment from Stahl:
Four years ago, you were behind in the polls, as you are now, and you pulled it out. But this time, you have kind of a double migraine. You have unemployment claims going up. You have Covid cases going up. I mean, it’s like the gods have suddenly decided to conspire against you—
Trump cut her off, and I can’t even tell where this was headed as a question, but What The Actual Fuck? Here is one of the supposedly top journalists in the country, preemptively absolving (the gods conspired!) the most powerful man in the world of responsibility for twin crises that we all know he made immeasurably worse with his actions and inactions.The real Covid dilemma: How many guests for Thanksgiving
Stahl’s interview with Vice President Mike Pence was no better.
The vice president is the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and, as such, should answer for the federal government’s breathtaking failure to address the pandemic. From the failure to provide testing or PPE, to the refusal to issue a national mask mandate, or to even mildly encourage the use of masks; the invocation of the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to stay open, ravaging immigrant communities, and the failure to apply it to secure ventilators; the lack of aid to struggling states and cities; billions in corporate bailouts, and peanuts for the tens of millions who have lost jobs. And so much else.
But did Stahl ask about any of those things? No. Instead, as with Trump, she turned life-and-death policy failures into matters of individual judgment and opinion. She asked if Pence cared to comment on Trump’s calling Dr. Fauci an idiot. Nine million Americans have been infected and a quarter million have died, not because of Trump’s insults, but because of a systematic and deliberate refusal to enact necessary public health measures. Where was that question?
Next, Stahl ignored Pence’s false dichotomy between the economy and public health, and asked this instead:
So let’s say there’s a mother out there. Let’s say in a hot spot in Wisconsin. And she’s wondering whether she should send her children to school. Now, what’s your advice?… So are you saying she should send the kids back? Should the kids wear masks?
Pence said they “should adhere to whatever criteria the school administrators and local health officials determine to be appropriate,” which, amidst other nonsense and lies, was actually not a terrible answer. But it tells us nothing about what the administration has and hasn’t done, will or won’t do, or should or shouldn’t do. The framing of the question itself precluded a meaningful conversation about policy, erasing the responsibility of the federal government and devolving responsibility instead to a matter of personal judgment.
After this, Stahl and Pence agreed that Thanksgiving was one of their favorite holidays, and you’d be forgiven if your takeaway from this interview was that the most pressing public health question facing the nation is how many people to invite for Thanksgiving this year.What’s scarier than a Halloween haunted house? A liberal White House
As bad as the Trump and Pence interviews were, the ones with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (10/25/20) were worse. When they weren’t just stupid (“Could Donald Trump still win this?”), Norah O’Donnell’s questions were based on textbook neoliberal orthodoxy. Indeed, they were virtually indistinguishable from the warnings corporate media have had for Democratic politicians in (and between) every election cycle.
The president made the case at the Republican Convention that your administration would be a Trojan horse for liberals. That AOC, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren would actually be controlling policy, that this would become the most liberal administration in US history.
Besides being obviously and laughably untrue, note that the framing of this comment rests on the assumption that being “the most liberal administration in US history” would be a bad thing. And when it came to economic policy and taxes, the bias got even clearer:
You are proposing several trillion dollars in new spending over the next decade for economic relief, education, healthcare. How are you going to pay for that?… You think it’s a good idea to raise taxes [on people earning more than $400,000] when the economy’s in dire straits?
Where was the question about whether it’s a good idea to let children go hungry and families get evicted? Where was the question about how to provide healthcare for the 15 million people who have lost insurance coverage during the pandemic, or what Biden’s plan is in the (very likely) case the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act in 2021?
The only way to tell that this interview was from 2020 rather than 2016, 2008 or 1992 was the addition of a pandemic neoliberalism section, raising alarm at the prospect that public health measures might “lock down the economy,” and citing, uncritically and without context, Scott Atlas’s herd immunity policy recommendations. (I wrote about the first wave of kill-grandma proposals to save the economy stock market last spring.)
O’Donnell’s interview with Harris was more of the same, grilling her on whether she would be loyal to Biden’s more conservative policy agenda:
You supported the Green New Deal, you supported Medicare for All. You’ve supported legalizing marijuana. Joe Biden doesn’t support those things. So are you going to bring… those progressive policies… into a Biden administration?
There were multiple follow-ups doubling down on this, including some classic red-baiting asking if Harris’s perspective was “socialist.” To her credit, Harris laughed at that.
The follow-ups on whether Harris would pull a Biden administration to the left also included a specific request for reassurance that Harris would not, as vice president, ever advocate for universal healthcare:
Just to button that up, because you have fought for Medicare for All…. If you become vice president, would you say to a President Biden, “You know what? Let’s—we should really be pushing for Medicare for All….”
Just to reiterate: The United States is in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic, hundreds of people are dying literally every day, 15 million people have lost healthcare coverage, the Supreme Court is set to end the program that provides coverage to another 21 million, and the thing O’Donnell felt it was important to “button up” was that the next vice president of the country would not be advocating for any kind of national healthcare.
Got it.Oops, we forgot to ask about racism
Among the various ways that Stahl tried to placate Trump was her shameful avoidance of any discussion of the administration’s racist and ethnic cleansing policies. The only person asked if any of Donald Trump’s actions were racist was Harris…the only Black person interviewed. Natch.
Stahl found a slew of euphemisms to replace any mention of white supremacy (“racial strife,” “the country being divided against itself”) and failed to mention its impacts, particularly devastating in 2020, altogether.
O’Donnell did no better. But she did inadvertently admit that US policing is inherently racist. She told Biden:
There’s a sense that there’s a divide out there, that in order to address systemic racism, that it’s anti-police, that you would not be a law-and-order president.
This, too, was a fishing expedition, looking for confirmation that Biden would choose “law and order,” i.e., the continuation of oppressive, racist policing, over addressing systemic racism. That much was clear from the follow up, in which O’Donnell invoked Trump’s barely coded racist boast, “I saved the suburbs.”
Whatever happens on and after November 3, one thing seems pretty clear: We can count on 60 Minutes to cover it in a way that props up the status quo.
Yesterday, with a week to go until Election Day (whatever those words mean these days), the US Elections Project—a website maintained by Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida—reported that the number of votes cast by mail and in-person in the 2020 presidential race already equates to more than half of the total turnout in 2016. In some states, the proportion is higher—Texas, for instance, is nearly at ninety percent of its 2016 turnout—with young and Black voters, in particular, voting early in great numbers. Many election experts (including McDonald) are confident that overall 2020 turnout will smash recent records, though others have been more circumspect—this, after all, is not a normal year for voting behavior. It’s also hard to know to what extent, if any, the voting picture favors Joe Biden over President Trump—in many ways, things look good for Democrats, but registered Republicans appear to be closing the gap in some places, and more Republicans than Democrats are expected to vote in person on Election Day (which, thanks in no small part to Trump’s lies, means something to them). It remains to be seen, too, how coverage of those who’ve voted already will affect the behavior of those who haven’t. While the early voting picture isn’t speculative, exactly, it’s incomplete. We’re watching it get drawn in real time, and doing some of the drawing ourselves.
In recent days and weeks, long lines outside polling places have become a dominant image in the news cycle. In many quarters, a narrative of surging enthusiasm has attached to such images—but that is far from the only factor. Many voters are turning up in person because they haven’t yet received their mail-in ballot or because they don’t trust that it will be processed expeditiously by the Postal Service and/or fairly by state election officials; as multiple outlets have reported, some are so worried that they’ve booked expensive cross-country flights home so they can vote in person. Malfunctioning voting technology—in Georgia and Texas, for example—has made the lines worse, as have garden-variety understaffing and incompetence. On Monday, a story in the New York Times ripped New York City’s election administration as a nepotistic “relic” of Tammany Hall; as long lines formed in her district in the city, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters that “there’d be national coverage” if the same thing happened in a swing state. Voter suppression, she added, doesn’t have to be intentional. “If the line to your polling place is so long that you don’t vote, that is a form of disenfranchisement.”
Related: At Voters’ Service
The lines outside polling places don’t so much reflect democracy in action as democracy in inaction—a reminder of America’s long, shameful history of voter suppression and its ongoing manifestations. “There is a media narrative that I’m seeing—that I would hope that we don’t normalize—saying things like ‘Voters say it’s worth it,’” Errin Haines, of The 19th*, said on a recent episode of The Takeaway. “Of course, it’s worth it… but that doesn’t mean that people should have to wait in line for nine hours to exercise their right as a citizen.” In other democracies, waiting nine hours to vote isn’t considered to be normal. (I am from the UK and have never had to wait to vote; when there have been delays at British polling stations, they’ve mostly been considered abnormal, and scandalous.) When you add in the context of a surging viral pandemic that makes physical exposure to other people highly risky, long lines aren’t just a democratic disgrace, but actively and immediately dangerous.
The lines, at least, are physically visible to the news media. Other, routine voter-suppression tactics targeting Black and other voters of color—restrictive voter ID laws, for instance, or the disproportionate rejection of Black voters’ mail-in ballots—are less so, but no less urgent. In 2013, the Supreme Court enabled such tactics when it gutted the Voting Rights Act. In recent days, the court appears to have been at it again. On Monday, it ruled that mail-in ballots in Wisconsin won’t be counted if they arrive after election day because, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in an alarming concurring opinion, states “want to be able to definitively announce the results of the election on election night” and ballots arriving later than that could “potentially flip the results.” This was specious reasoning (Thank you, honey!), since election-night calls are an invention of the media, not election law, and you can’t “flip” a result that hasn’t been finalized. Many legal experts and commentators excoriated Kavanaugh’s opinion—Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern said it was stuffed with lies and errors so sloppy they’d “make even a traffic court judge blush”; Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce wrote that Kavanaugh had threatened to unleash “a zombie Bush v. Gore”—and noted that it did not bode well for post-election litigation, especially given that, around the time it was published, the Senate was confirming a new conservative justice.
The notion that all American voters are equal has long been a fiction. This election cycle, much conscientious, prominent reporting has emphasized the reality, particularly in light of Trump’s overt threats to the integrity of the vote. In recent days, numerous outlets, including the Times, Business Insider, and FiveThirtyEight, have sought to widen the spotlight still, by telling the stories of those who have decided not to vote at all, a huge group that often falls off the radar of mainstream election coverage or else is tarred with insinuations of laziness—problems exacerbated by inadequate racial and class representation in newsrooms. As the stories above show, reasons for not voting vary, but a big one is the persistent sense that politicians of both parties have not succeeded in meeting the basic needs of struggling people. As one nonvoter told the Times, the economic carnage of the pandemic has left her struggling to make ends meet, making politics “the least of my worries.”
McDonald’s prediction that this year’s turnout rate could be the highest since 1908 is striking, but it’s also striking that the rate we’re talking about is only sixty-five percent of eligible voters. If voters staying away from the polls because of long lines is a form of voter suppression, as Ocasio-Cortez rightly puts it, then isn’t the same true of those voters who will stay away because they don’t think their vote will mean anything? At the very least, the two trends share causes—institutional racism; a broad culture of bureaucratic incompetence and inertia that doesn’t just make it harder for people to vote, but to access healthcare, affordable housing, and so on. Any full accounting of early voting, turnout, and what it all means must keep in mind all those that the system leaves behind, and not just those affected by overt, high-level outrages like the Kavanaugh opinion.
As NPR’s Sam Sanders put it on Twitter yesterday, there’s a chance that, when the results finally come in, we see “a flurry of think pieces on so-called voter apathy, particularly among marginalized communities and communities of color. But remember, no discussion of voter apathy is complete without a discussion of voter suppression.”
Below, more on voting and the election:
- Voting and nursing homes: Mariel Padilla, of The 19th*, reports that America’s nursing-home population, which is majority female, is facing extra challenges to voting this year. “Of the 1.3 million nursing home residents in the United States, about half a million have no or mild cognitive impairment and are more likely to vote,” Padilla writes. “But nursing home advocates and experts are concerned that thousands upon thousands of nursing home residents may not be able to vote due to increased restrictions under the pandemic, understaffing and the spread of misinformation.”
- Voting and prisons: Another group of Americans that doesn’t vote, of course, is prisoners, who are legally disenfranchised and whose opinions are all but invisible to political media. In March, Slate and the Marshall Project sought to correct that, commissioning a first-of-its-kind, eight-thousand-person survey inside prisons and jails nationwide. Yesterday, the same outlets published a second survey covering nearly 2,400 incarcerated people in twelve states. The responses reflected prisoners’ “passionate and nuanced opinions about what interventions might have kept them out of prison and what policies the next president could pursue.”
- Stop saying ‘Election Day’: In an op-ed for CNN, Vivian Schiller argues that, in light of all the early voting, it’s time for reporters, pundits, and campaigns to retire the phrase “Election Day,” and instead count down to “the last day of voting.” Changing our language is “more than an arcane exercise in etymology,” Schiller writes. “Focusing on the anachronistic notion of a singular election day is a disservice to the public who are already confused by where and how to vote. Worse, it risks reinforcing the notion that in-person day-of votes are more legitimate than votes by mail”—a lie pushed by Trump.
- Hyper Lincoln: In recent months, the Lincoln Project, a group founded by anti-Trump Republicans, has launched a pre-election messaging blitz trolling the president and generally getting under his thin skin. Now Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that the group has plans to develop into a full-fledged media company after election day: it’s in talks with a talent agency and “is weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks, and book publishers.”
- On climate change: The Climate Beat, the newsletter of CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, makes the case that last week’s debate featured a rare, substantive conversation on climate change that the political press subsequently fumbled: “Across the media, journalists fell back on horserace framing that ignored science and made faulty assumptions, focusing especially on Biden’s pledge to ‘transition from the oil industry’ to renewable energy.”
Other notable stories:
- On Monday, police in Philadelphia shot and killed Walter Wallace, Jr., a twenty-seven-year-old Black man. Officers said that Wallace was armed with a knife and had advanced toward them, but, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he appeared to be “multiple feet” from the officers “when they fired numerous shots”; Wallace’s father, Walter Wallace, Sr., told the paper that his son had mental-health issues, and asked why police didn’t use non-lethal force. The killing sparked protests which continued last night. Elsewhere, Gayle King, of CBS This Morning, interviewed two grand jurors in the case of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville in March. They say they weren’t given the option to pursue murder or manslaughter charges against the officers involved.
- Today, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey—the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, respectively—will testify before the Senate Commerce Committee. They plan to defend Section 230, a provision exempting platforms from liability for users’ posts that has come under bipartisan scrutiny. Ahead of time, Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s top Democrat, published a report arguing that big tech’s “unfair market practices” have injured the news industry, and calling for greater federal protections for local journalism. Cantwell discussed the report with the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
- Late on Monday night, Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed CEO of the US Agency for Global Media, dismantled a firewall intended to protect the agency’s broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, from political interference. Pack already moved to oust the broadcasters’ leaders and investigate journalists whose work was perceived as critical of Trump. Staffers told NPR’s David Folkenflik that the moves pose an “existential” threat to VOA’s editorial independence.
- Last month, Justice Department lawyers moved to assume Trump’s defense in a defamation case brought against him by E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist who says that Trump raped her in the nineties and is suing him over his denial. The lawyers argued that the denial was an official act—but yesterday, a judge rejected that claim, and blocked the government from intervening. Carroll can now go ahead and sue Trump as a private citizen. (ICYMI, Carroll recently appeared on CJR’s podcast, The Kicker.)
- Two years ago yesterday, a gunman murdered eleven Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh. Jane Eisner writes for CJR that the shooting proved to be an “inflection point, after which journalists paid more attention to anti-Semitism and were more understanding of its place and presence in American society.” She adds, however, that “some journalists still do not grasp the complexity of the problem.”
- Vanity Fair’s William D. Cohan explores links between the Bradley Foundation, a wealthy conservative group, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Since 2010, the foundation has awarded $250,000 prizes to four journalists linked to the Journal’s editorial page, including its editor, Paul Gigot, and Kimberley Strassel, who wrote a takedown of the Bidens last week. (Gigot said the foundation has never influenced his section’s work.)
- Staffers at NowThis are unionizing with the Writers Guild of America, East. The new union says that eighty-five percent of eligible employees have signed on, and that the site’s owner, Group Nine Media, has already voluntarily recognized the effort. The union intends to push for greater diversity, equitable pay, fairness, and transparency.
- And, with 2020 increasingly feeling like a bad movie, Maura Judkis, of the Post, asked five screenwriters how they’d salvage this year, if it were a script. Eli Attie, a writer on The West Wing, says he’d slow 2020 down and “take out some of these plot events.” Angela Kang, The Walking Dead’s showrunner, would end it with an “absurdist turn.”
Over the weekend, the Union Leader, a newspaper in Manchester, New Hampshire, endorsed Joe Biden for president. “We have found Mr. Biden to be a caring, compassionate and professional public servant,” an editorial in the paper read; President Trump, by contrast, “is not always 100 percent wrong, but he is 100 percent wrong for America.” There’s nothing remarkable in these words, but there was something remarkable about the source: the editorial line of the Union Leader has long skewed highly conservative. (Hunter S. Thompson once called it “America’s worst newspaper.”) National outlets covered the endorsement as a story in its own right, and it drove stunned chatter on Twitter. CNN’s Jake Tapper posted a gif of hell freezing over. USA Today’s Susan Page asked when the Union Leader last endorsed a Democrat for president. Joe McQuaid, its former publisher, said it may have happened in 1912.
The endorsement seemed to be taken as a sign of the times—one more unprecedented rebuke of Trump and his flailing campaign. In late September, the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune—which, like the Union Leader, supported the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, in 2016—endorsed Biden; over the weekend, so did the Topeka Capital-Journal, in Kansas, which plumped for Trump in 2016. (It has changed owners since then.) Last week, USA Today, which has never before endorsed a presidential candidate, broke that tradition to support Biden; in another first, El Nuevo Día, a leading newspaper in Puerto Rico, endorsed Biden’s plan for the territory. With the pandemic looming over the election, Scientific American said that it “felt compelled” to endorse Biden, having never before backed a presidential candidate, and the New England Journal of Medicine, a world-leading medical publication, effectively did likewise, urging its readers to kick out America’s “current political leaders.” The Lancet, a British medical journal that I profiled recently for CJR, made a similar call back in May. And liberal-leaning publications that you’d expect to back Biden have done so with added urgency. Trump, the editors of The Atlantic wrote last week, “is a clear and continuing danger” and “it does not seem likely that our country would be able to emerge whole from four more years of his misrule.”
New from CJR: At Voters’ Service
Look more closely at the endorsement picture, though, and a messier narrative starts to emerge. The Spokane Spokesman-Review, in Washington state, just endorsed Trump, having supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. (Confusingly, it also just endorsed Jay Inslee, a liberal Democrat, for another term as governor of Washington.) Other papers that backed Trump in 2016—the Las Vegas Review-Journal; the Santa Barbara News-Press—are backing him again, and he also scored the support of the Colorado Springs Gazette and, yesterday, the New York Post. The latter endorsement is hardly a surprise, but it does, technically, mark a Trump gain on 2016, when the Post backed Trump in the Republican primary but didn’t endorse anyone in the fall. (Its cover then: a photo of a woman holding her nose headlined, “Vote for the one you dislike least”; its cover now: a photo of Trump headlined, “Make America great again, again.”) Many papers that endorsed a candidate in 2016 have declined to do so this year; last month, McClatchy barred its titles, including the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer, from endorsing unless they first conducted interviews with both Biden and Trump. Sure, among publications that have endorsed, Biden holds a massive lead—according to The Hill, he has at least 119 endorsements, to Trump’s six—but that doesn’t represent much of a change from 2016, when Clinton hammered Trump in endorsements. We all know how that turned out.
Rather than a divining rod for the national mood, assessing the state of the endorsement race feels more like a case of swings and roundabouts. In the same vein, we’ve seen a retreading of the quadrennial debate as to whether newspapers weighing in on candidates is A Good Thing or Not. Critics of the practice continue to argue that endorsements don’t tend to sway voters—as Josh Sternberg wrote yesterday in his newsletter, The Media Nut, they are “a vestige” of a bygone age when newspapers “controlled what information was considered worthy of discussion”—and risk undermining readers’ trust in impartial news reporting by making papers as a whole, and not just their editorial boards, look biased. Sometimes, endorsements are palpably silly. In January, the New York Times editorial board was (not unfairly) ridiculed for holding a glossy, multimedia endorsement process during the Democratic primary, then picking two candidates—Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren—at the end of it; over the weekend, the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s endorsement advised readers to vote Trump even though he is “a bully and a bigot.” Nor are endorsements necessarily representative of anything useful. Given the overbearing whiteness of the media industry, BIPOC perspectives often get marginalized. Sometimes, a newspaper’s endorsement merely reflects the views of a single person or family; as Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton noted yesterday and the Inlander has previously reported, the Spokesman-Review’s editorial board has one member: the paper’s publisher, Stacey Cowles.
These are weighty objections. But to my mind, at least, they aren’t sufficient to damn the concept of the newspaper endorsement—because they all speak to much bigger problems with the media industry. Mistaking the opinion of the editorial board—or an individual columnist or contributor, for that matter—for the opinion of a paper’s news staff is a media-literacy issue exacerbated by the internet’s disaggregation of the printed news product. So is the broader problem of media mistrust. There aren’t easy fixes here. But mistrust has many causes—not least press-bashing politicians—and papers defensively changing their habits in response isn’t always warranted. Besides, editors can make design choices that emphasize the difference between news and opinion. Even if such choices don’t work, the conclusion that papers should scrap endorsements is an overreaction. Concerns about endorsements and representation are more valid. But again, the answer, here, is to improve media diversity and ownership structures. Canceling endorsements is to remove a symptom, and not a cause. They are an easy target; the structural problems they channel, much less so.
Establishing that endorsements might not be a bad thing (or not the bad thing, at least) is not the same as making a positive case for them, of course. But they do seem to me to have some value. Some studies have shown that endorsements can influence voters, particularly when they’re unexpected. (The Union Leader’s Biden endorsement would seem to fit in that category.) Local papers’ endorsements in down-ballot races—where readers might have less knowledge of the candidates than in ticket-topping races—can be particularly consequential, too.
Ultimately, the value of endorsements is independent of whether they change votes: they continue a tradition of civic engagement and debate that, quite simply, is a newspaper’s job, whether readers are swayed or not. In January 2017, Danny Funt compellingly outlined a similar case for CJR. In reporting his piece, Funt spoke with opinion editors at more than twenty papers nationwide; one of them, John McCormick, who was then the editorial page editor at the Chicago Tribune, said that “every few years, endorsements bring a publication to full stop. They explain to the world what that publication is, what it advocates, how it thinks, what principles it holds dear.” You don’t have to agree with the Tribune’s judgments—and many people certainly did not agree with its 2016 endorsement of Gary Johnson—to see the wisdom in those words.
Below, more on endorsements and the election:
- A notable endorsement: Yesterday, The State, a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, endorsed Jaime Harrison, a Democrat who is running against the incumbent Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Harrison is running Graham remarkably close, helped in no small part by a huge recent fundraising haul. “We started as a 17-point underdog. Today, I’m honored to accept the endorsement of the oldest newspaper in South Carolina,” Harrison wrote, of The State’s endorsement. “Change is coming, folks.”
- A crucial function: CJR’s new fellows Shinhee Kang, Ian Karbal, and Feven Merid explore the crucial role that local news outlets are playing in serving their residents information about the voting process, with a particular focus on Ohio, where thousands of voters recently received incorrect mail-in ballots. “For local reporters in Ohio,” Kang, Karbal, and Merid write, “the ballot-distribution error was an opportunity to provide valuable guidance—especially considering, on the national level, the rampant disinformation about election interference and voter fraud.”
- Hit the road, frack: At last week’s presidential debate, Biden said that he would transition away from the oil industry, and the Trump campaign smelled a gotcha moment. As Emily Atkin writes in her newsletter, HEATED, the media has abetted Trump’s subsequent climate talking points: she assessed thirty articles about the debate exchange and “found that while they all discussed the economic consequences of climate policy, only five discussed the cost of doing nothing.” Trump has also sought to weaponize Biden’s stance on fracking. Several national outlets have hyped fracking as a potentially decisive issue in Pennsylvania—but Oliver Morrison of PublicSource, a nonprofit newsroom in the Pittsburgh area, writes that local voters are probably more concerned about the pandemic, the economy, and America’s “racial reckoning.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch also objected to the media’s fracking coverage.)
- Lessons learned?: TV networks handed Trump oodles of free airtime in 2016. Ariana Pekary, CJR’s public editor for CNN, argues that they haven’t learned from that mistake: Trump was on CNN 1,332 times in September, compared to 829 appearances for Biden, and, as of October 18, Trump led 593 to 179 for this month. Even this close to the election, media decision-makers remain hooked on “chaos and outrage.”
Other notable stories:
- Last night, the Republican-held Senate voted to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Afterward, she was sworn in by Justice Clarence Thomas in a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House—one month to the day since a Rose Garden gathering in honor of Barrett’s nomination that turned out to be a COVID-19 superspreader event. In his media newsletter, CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote that Barrett’s confirmation, despite its huge significance, concluded quietly. It was “a fait accompli from the moment it was a possibility, which stripped the proceedings of most of their news value,” he wrote—and besides, we’re distracted by COVID and suffering political fatigue.
- Yesterday, the New Yorker published an excerpt from A Promised Land, Barack Obama’s forthcoming presidential memoir, that focuses on Obama’s “toughest fight”: healthcare reform. David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, praises Obama as “a particularly writerly President,” but notes that the writing of the new book “did not come easily”; when Remnick met with him last year, Obama “made it plain that the book was proving far more stubborn than he had hoped.”
- Olivia Nuzzi, of New York, profiled one of her anonymous Republican sources and reflected on her complicity, as a reporter, in allowing him to trash Trump on background while publicly praising him. If forced to choose between on-the-record lies or anonymous truth, “I will choose the truth every time,” Nuzzi writes. She concedes, though, that in making that choice, she is “part of a system that enables political leaders to have it both ways.” The press, Nuzzi adds, “provides the alibi as it prosecutes the case.”
- Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News, and on-air stars Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Dana Perino, and Juan Williams have been told to quarantine after taking a charter flight with a staffer who later tested positive for COVID-19. The Daily Beast reports concerns that the incident will complicate the network’s election-night coverage. The Beast also reports that Rob Brown, a Fox video producer, died last week after contracting COVID.
- The Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert writes that BuzzFeed is on track to break even for the first year since 2014—but only because it offset sliding revenue by implementing furloughs, layoffs, and other sharp cuts. BuzzFeed’s news division, in particular, has been heavily pared back in recent years. Some investors have questioned its value to BuzzFeed’s business, though executives see it as a source of prestige, Alpert reports.
- At the end of the year, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, in Utah, will end a longstanding joint operating agreement that saw the papers coordinate on printing, production, and distribution—a move that will lead to the loss of 161 jobs. Following the end of the agreement, the Tribune—which made a pioneering switch to a nonprofit model last year—will end its daily print paper and start publishing a weekly instead.
- In the UK, lawyers for Prince Harry issued a warning to the Mail on Sunday, claiming that its recent report alleging that Harry has turned his back on the British Marines was “false and defamatory.” Meghan Markle, Harry’s wife, is currently suing the same paper’s owner for breach of copyright; in April, CJR’s Amanda Darrach outlined that case.
- And CJR’s Savannah Jacobson profiles the magazine of AARP, a nonprofit representing people over the age of fifty. The magazine is, by default, the most widely-circulated in the US, and its output is “a sort of hybrid combining the glossiness of People, the tips of Cook’s Illustrated, and the policy-deciphering bent of Vox,” Jacobson writes.
As Republicans ram through Trump’s third Supreme Court nomination with an election underway, Democrats are increasingly contemplating expanding the court. But rather than cover it with the “objectivity” they claim to strive for, the country’s dominant media outlets have adopted a right-wing frame of the issue—calling it “court packing”—that delegitimizes court expansion.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death Revives Talk of Court Packing,” announced a New York Times headline (9/19/20). “What Is Court Packing, and Why Are Some Democrats Seriously Considering It?” asked the Washington Post (10/8/20). In that piece, the Post‘s Amber Phillips explicitly acknowledged the bias inherent in the phrase, yet presented it as practically official:
Expanding the Supreme Court to more than nine seats sounds like a radical idea, and the term for it, “court packing,” sounds derisive because it has created controversy every time it has come up.
In typical corporate media style, such articles often present the issue as a he said/she said dispute. In the WaPo piece, Democrats are “frustrated that the Supreme Court could get even more conservative,” while Republicans “paint that as sour grapes”; over at the Times, Democrats “characterize court expansion as a defensive move against Republican actions, not a unilateral power grab,” while Republicans “have called the idea radical and undemocratic.”
In these formulations, one side must win and the other lose. But the reality they gloss over is that those aren’t the real teams here. The struggle over the Court is at heart a struggle between anti-democratic forces and the interests of the vast majority of people in this country.
In recent years, massive amounts of corporate money have been directed toward efforts, led by the right-wing Federalist Society, to capture the US courts for corporate interests—dismantling voting rights, favoring corporate rights over individual rights, and stripping the power of government to regulate corporations (CounterSpin, 10/16/20). By framing the issue as one of Republicans vs. Democrats, media ignore the more important threat to democracy as a whole. And by accepting “court packing” as “the term for” expanding the court, journalists lend a hand to those anti-democratic forces.
The phrase “court packing” isn’t new. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s opponents coined it to delegitimize his plan to expand the court after it repeatedly struck down parts of his New Deal in the name of restraining government power (federal and—in some cases, like the court’s rejection of New York’s effort to set a minimum wage for women—state). In the end, FDR’s plan languished in the Senate, but the president won the war; in the wake of his public campaign against it, the court began issuing rulings more favorable to the New Deal and other economic recovery plans. One of the conservative justices retired, giving FDR the opportunity to swing the balance back in his favor—no thanks to the media, which ran predominantly unfavorable stories about FDR’s plan.
The circumstances are different this time around, with Republicans on the verge of installing a 6–3 conservative majority, and none of the conservative seats likely to open under a Biden term; the oldest conservative justice, Clarence Thomas, is just 72, and hasn’t given any indication that he’s interested in retiring. Plus, it’s unlikely Biden would push forcefully for a court expansion the way FDR did, putting pressure on the court to temper its rulings. But the rampant journalistic use of the biased term “court packing” hasn’t changed.
A Nexis search of US newspapers for the past three months (7/24/20–10/24/20) turns up 244 headlines with some version of the phrase “court packing” (including, e.g., “pack the court” or “packing the court”). Less than half as many, 98, used a version of the more neutral “court expansion” (such as “expanding the court”), and almost half of those (48) also used the phrase “court packing” within the article.
It’s also noteworthy what that these “court packing” stories highlight—and ignore. In arguments about court expansion, the right tends to focus on ideas of tradition (like the false claim that adding justices would be unprecedented) and the culture wars (like Roe v. Wade). Democrats often lean on the Republican hypocrisy of blocking Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat in 2016, when the GOP insisted, eight months before an election, that the voters should have a chance to weigh in before a new justice was confirmed—a principle instantly abandoned when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died seven weeks before an election.
The role of corporate money and the Federalist Society, and the threats they pose to democracy, often go unmentioned by both sides. In the last three months, newspaper stories that mentioned “court packing” also mentioned Merrick Garland 358 times and abortion 337 times; Roe v. Wade made 159 appearances. But these stories mentioned the Federalist Society only 33 times; of those, only seven mentioned “corporate” or “corporation.”
In the end, it’s unlikely that even if—and it’s a big if—Democrats take the presidency and the Senate, there will be enough agreement within the party to expand the Supreme Court. But that’s also not the only way to counter the corporate takeover of the court. In the face of an intransigent pro-slavery court, Lincoln and his anti-slavery allies recognized that their most powerful and effective strategy was not to try to add enough justices to gain the upper hand within the court; it was to undermine the false image of an impartial, democracy-protecting court that must always have the last word. As Matt Karp writes in Jacobin (9/19/20):
Lincoln persisted in rejecting judicial supremacy — and also the basic idea underlying it, that law somehow exists before or beyond politics, and thus it was illegitimate to resist the proslavery court through popular antislavery mobilization. “We do not propose to be bound by [Dred Scott] as a political rule,” he said. “We propose resisting it as to have it reversed if we can, and a new judicial rule established upon this subject.”
Others have advocated for a similar approach today: marginalizing rather than trying to capture the court (e.g., New Republic, 10/13/20). Neither task would be easy, but getting journalists to talk more directly about the true problems with the court is a critical step along the way.
Featured image: Anti-FDR cartoon from the Waterbury Republican (2/14/1937).
Over the weekend, President Trump took a (relative) backseat in the news cycle as other members of his party came to the fore. We learned that five top aides to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive for COVID-19; Pence has been in “close contact” with at least one of them, but rather than isolate, he plans to continue with his in-person campaigning activities, on the grounds that they, somehow, constitute essential work. Bloomberg broke the story of the Penceworld outbreak, just as it broke the story of the Trumpworld outbreak earlier this month; according to the New York Times, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, worked to keep the latest round of positive tests from becoming public knowledge. Yesterday, Meadows made headlines in his own right, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that the administration is “not going to control the pandemic.” When Tapper asked why not, Meadows replied, “because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.” His initial quote reverberated across the mediasphere.
Elsewhere in Washington, Senate Republicans convened a rare weekend session and voted to advance the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. She’ll be confirmed today. Just two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against advancing the nomination, after citing the proximity of an election and Republicans’ refusal, on such grounds, to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016—but Murkowski also said that, having lost the vote, she’ll put her procedural objections aside and vote to confirm Barrett anyway. Murkowski’s announcement drove headlines, as did a remark that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, made about Barrett’s impending confirmation. “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election,” he said, but Democrats “won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
Scrutiny and criticism of the negligence and hypocrisy of Republicans who aren’t Trump is not anything new, of course—complicity has been a defining story of the Trump era. Over the weekend, the editorial board of the Times spoke to the theme in an editorial that was headlined “RIP GOP” and accompanied by an illustration of a Republican elephant half-buried underground. The GOP has “allowed itself to be co-opted and radicalized by Trumpism,” the editorial read, noting that Trump didn’t conjure that trend in the party, but rather accelerated a longer-term process of moral decay. “Its ideology has been reduced to a slurry of paranoia, white grievance and authoritarian populism. Its governing vision is reactionary, a cross between obstructionism and owning the libs.” The weekend saw some sharp coverage on the news side, too.
Still, even at this late stage of the campaign and Trump’s term, too much coverage of the GOP and senior figures within it continues to be credulous, even generous. That’s partly because “bothsidesism” remains hardwired into the basic structure of political media, and the Republican Party is one of the sides that makes that dynamic work. The idea of hearing (more or less) equally from both parties continues to be an organizing principle of the Sunday shows, for example, and many Republicans continue to exploit that principle to throw out lies and smears. Important policy stories—around coronavirus stimulus negotiations, for example—continue to be framed as partisan clashes, often eliding Republican hypocrisy and obstructionism. And too many journalists still borrow Republican talking points when grilling Democrats, presumably in a bid to show evenhandedness. We saw this in the recent, overheated coverage of Joe Biden’s stance on Supreme Court reform, as well as in the debate question that Biden faced last week on his son Hunter’s business dealings. On 60 Minutes yesterday, Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, asked Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, whether she has a “socialist” perspective. Harris laughed at the question.
Similarly, senior Republicans’ promises are still often taken at face value when experience has shown that a greater skepticism is warranted. Murkowski’s Supreme Court pledge is one such example. (Shortly before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Murkowski said she wouldn’t “vote to confirm” a hypothetical new justice prior to the election; when the question was no longer hypothetical, she said she opposed “taking up a nomination”—a subtle change of language that left Murkowski some wiggle room yet didn’t seem to register with much of the press.) We saw another example in late September, after Trump threatened not to accept a peaceful transfer of power. Many outlets reported that Republican senators “rebuked” Trump by giving “assurances” to the contrary—but, as Politico noted, the senators declined to say what they’d actually do to ensure a peaceful transition. And again, wording matters. McConnell, for instance, promised that the “winner” of the election would be inaugurated in an “orderly” manner—an “assurance” against a violent coup, maybe, but not against the much likelier eventuality that Trump and his allies could exploit procedural chicanery to make it look like he won when he actually didn’t.
More recently, two Republican senators—Ben Sasse of Nebraska and John Cornyn of Texas—criticized Trump, and their remarks attracted a great deal of attention, feeding a broader narrative of pre-election tension between the president and his co-partisans. (The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Trump privately told donors that it’ll be tough for Senate Republicans to retain their majority, and that he doesn’t want to help some of them get reelected.) As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard argued last week, Sasse (eighty-seven percent of the time) and Cornyn (ninety-five percent of the time) have almost always voted to further Trump’s interests, and look more like “rats fleeing a sinking ship” than profiles in courage. Yet many in the press have swallowed their recent strategic-distancing act.
As Shephard notes, the media narrative that Republicans are starting to break with—or trying to moderate—Trump isn’t new; it’s been a recurring feature of the past four years. (See also: the “Committee to Save America,” the Anonymous op-ed.) On Friday, On The Media’s Bob Garfield jumped off of the recent Sasse and Cornyn coverage to review previous Republican “breaks” with Trump that never ended up happening. (He compared members of the media to Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin.) Whether through “careless extrapolation” or wishful thinking, Garfield said, reporters have consistently been “super willing” to believe that Republican leaders might grow a backbone, this time. The result: “so many exoduses that weren’t, so many ‘growing distances,’ so many journo geologists detecting so many ‘fault lines.’”
The reasons that we indulge episodes like the Sasse and Cornyn criticism surely also include simple novelty, and a predisposition to seek tension where it can’t meaningfully be said to exist. Whatever the motivation, the election results—whatever they may be—will represent a critical juncture in coverage of the Republican Party. Should Trump win again and top Republicans rally around him as if they never doubted his chances, it’ll be the media’s job to call out the corrosive hypocrisy of that dynamic, and its ramifications going forward; should Trump lose and top Republicans seek to distance themselves from him, it’ll be our job not to let them. The Republican Party’s Trumpian turn likely won’t end with Trump, and in any case, the last four years will still have happened. Trump’s enablers must not be allowed to slip quietly into opposition, distracting the press with a volley of media-friendly, anti-Biden talking points.
Below, more on the Republican Party and the election:
- Perls of wisdom: For CJR, I spoke with Rick Perlstein, a prominent historian of conservatism, about his recent book, Reaganland, and the light it shines on the long history of bothsidesism and other bad media practices. Going into the election, Perlstein told me, reporters should “not allow themselves to be manipulated,” and should “study the history of how right-wing politicians have weaponized the anxieties of culturally-elite journalists in order to deliver more power to themselves.”
- On Barrett and climate change: As Mark Hertsgaard wrote last week for CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, Barrett’s impending confirmation doesn’t bode well for addressing the climate crisis, yet her stance on the question has passed under the radar of much general media coverage. Now more than seventy science and climate journalists—including Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Sonia Shah—have put their names to an op-ed, published in Rolling Stone, pushing back on Barrett’s nomination. Barrett, the signatories write, “has displayed a profound inability to understand the ecological crisis of our times, and in so doing she enables it.”
- The local angle, I: Politico’s Meridith McGraw reports that the Trump campaign is attempting to flood local TV and radio with ads and rallies in the run-up to election day, in part because doing so is cheaper than flooding national media. The strategy, however, has led to a slew of negative headlines in local outlets, including “articles about rallies that eschew pandemic guidelines, news of people sickened by coronavirus afterward, spats with local officials that dominate regional coverage before and after a visit.”
- The local angle, II: The Union-Leader, a conservative newspaper in Manchester, New Hampshire, endorsed Biden—the first time it has ever backed a Democrat for president. (It endorsed Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, in 2016.) The Capital-Journal in Topeka, Kansas, which endorsed Trump in 2016, is also going for Biden this time. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, however, endorsed Trump for president, having opted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. (The paper also just endorsed Jay Inslee, a liberal Democrat, for reelection as governor of Washington. It cited “significant misgivings” with both Trump and Inslee.)
Other notable stories:
- On Friday, with COVID-19 cases surging again, the Times and eleven other outlets—the Buffalo News, in New York; the Victoria Advocate, in Texas; the Harrisburg Patriot-News, in Pennsylvania; the Grand Rapids Press, in Michigan; the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in Florida; the Arizona Daily Star; the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, in Wisconsin; the Voice of OC, in California; the Augusta Chronicle, in Georgia; the Las Vegas Sun; and the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, in Kentucky—published “Out of Work in America,” a project tracking the lives of a dozen people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. “The impact of millions of lost jobs today is less visible when so many are staying home,” the Times writes, in an introduction. “Social distancing has helped financial suffering hide.”
- Edmund Lee, of the Times, spoke with Black journalists who have worked with Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor in chief and Condé Nast editorial director who has been accused of creating a work environment “that sidelined and tokenized women of color, especially Black women.” Eighteen sources told Lee that “Vogue welcomed a certain type of employee—someone who is thin and white, typically from a wealthy family and educated at elite schools.” Eleven of those sources say that Wintour should no longer be in post. (Wintour told Lee that she has made mistakes and is committed to doing better.)
- Amber Jamieson, Craig Silverman, and Ken Bensinger, of BuzzFeed, obtained an internal Wall Street Journal report—dating to July and compiled by strategy editors at the paper—making the case that the Journal is overly focused on delivering a print product to older, male subscribers; does not fully understand the internet; and does not sufficiently cover race and gender, in part because reporters “self-censor” from pitching related stories. (Matt Murray, the paper’s editor in chief, said that the report contains “outdated and inaccurate information,” but did not point to specific inaccuracies.)
- Benjamin Mullin, Joe Flint, and Drew FitzGerald, of the Journal, report that Jeff Zucker may quit as president of CNN once—or even before—his current contract expires next year. Zucker has said he will make a decision on his future after the election. He recently told network staffers that he loves his job—but he also acknowledged that both the industry and CNN are changing, and the Journal reports that he bridled at a recent restructuring that weakened his grip on CNN’s finances, HR, and communications.
- On Friday, federal prosecutors charged Ken Kurson, a former editor of the New York Observer, with variously cyberstalking and harassing five people, including his ex-wife. Kurson is close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, and advised Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign while also serving as the Observer’s editor. (Full disclosure: Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, is also a former editor of the Observer.)
- CNN’s Hanna Ziady profiles The Voice, a weekly newspaper that was founded in 1982, following racist coverage of unrest in London a year earlier, to serve the British-born African-Caribbean community. “Existing Black newspapers… catered to mostly older immigrants who wanted to follow news from the Caribbean,” Ziady writes, whereas The Voice “tapped into a generation figuring out what it meant to be Black and British.”
- Recently, a tribunal in France ordered a company that certifies medical devices to hand journalists from Le Monde a list of products that it certified as compliant with European standards. Le Monde requested the data—which was initially withheld on trade-secret grounds—as part of a global investigation, spearheaded by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, that I followed from behind the scenes and profiled for CJR.
- And Julie Wernau, James V. Grimaldi, and Stephanie Armour, of the Journal, had the story of the day yesterday, reporting that Michael Caputo, a Health and Human Services spokesperson, wanted Santa performers to promote vaccination against COVID in return for preferential access to a vaccine. Caputo recently went on leave, and his plan has been scrapped—to the “disappointment” of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas.
The Republican National Convention this year made fighting “cancel culture” a priority for the party. Former Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch wrote in the Wall Street Journal (7/27/20) that cancel culture was at the heart of the crisis facing academic freedom in the nation. Other right-wing activists noted the same in the Washington Times (8/10/20), and Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson (Real Clear Politics, 7/3/20) talk about the issue constantly.
The message is that cancel culture is a lurking threat against any professor or writer. Make one transphobic comment, a slightly sexist joke, a perceived slight against an oppressed group, and you could see dozens, hundreds or thousands of Twitter social justice activists rally for your termination of employment. This is the new McCarthyism, say cancel culture critics: A mob of politically correct warriors can suppress conservative speech by using the power of internet outrage to enforce liberal-defined speech codes on race, gender, etc. At any minute, you—especially if you are a white, heterosexual, cisgender man—are just one slip-up away from getting, well, canceled.
It’s not just the conservative media’s war. The New York Times has published several pieces on the subject (8/10/20, 7/14/20, 7/16/20). Last summer in Harper’s (7/7/20), a group of well-known writers and academics denounced the attitudes of social media users (FAIR.org, 8/1/20).
Fear that tone-policing liberals will squelch free inquiry on campus and elsewhere isn’t new (FAIR.org, 5–6/91). Academic Paul Berman’s Debating PC and late Village Voice journalist Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me—but Not for Thee explored these topics in 1995 and 1992, respectively. But today’s moral panic in response to collegiate liberalism and the online commentariat has reached a point that the president of the United States has felt moved to make combating this social plague a part of his re-election campaign (USA Today, 9/3/20).
Opposition to cancel culture has created its own media industry. Tory broadcaster Piers Morgan has a new book on the subject. Judy Gold (Jewish Insider, 7/28/20) and Adam Carolla (The Hill, 11/20/19) are among the many comics who have built shticks on attacking the sensitivities of liberal culture. There is even a podcast, Blocked and Reported, devoted entirely to reviewing instances of online censoriousness.
But who, in fact, is being “canceled” at universities (FAIR.org, 6/15/17)? Steven Salaita, whose pro-Palestine comments were perceived as insensitive to Jews (e.g., “If it’s ‘antisemitic’ to deplore colonization, land theft and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have?”—Twitter, 7/19/14), lost his job offer at the University of Illinois in 2015. Political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher, an outspoken activist against white supremacy, was forced out of his tenured position at Drexel University in 2018 after his Twitter post mocking the ludicrous notion of “white genocide” was misconstrued as anti-white racism. Most recently, Zoom, now the ubiquitous application used for holding remote meetings and forums, in September 2020 canceled the airing of a talk at San Francisco State University by Leila Khaled, whose affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine rankled pro-Israel groups.
In 2018, several groups wrote to nearly 300 universities demanding free speech protections for campus communities, which, activists said, were under attack by outside pro-Israel groups—their letter insisted that administrations condemn the
Canary Mission, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and other groups that use defamatory intimidation and blacklisting tactics, including those that chill advocacy for Palestinian rights on campus.
Thousands of conservative activists in December 2016 pressed Hunter College to fire urban policy professor Matthew Lasner because his husband was allegedly mean to Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the then-president-elect, on an airplane. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, one of the Trump administration’s biggest cheerleaders in academia, was instrumental in forcing DePaul University to oust political scientist Norman Finkelstein, a critic of Israel (and Dershowitz), in 2007.
Yet this isn’t exactly what the anti-cancel culture zealots are referring to. Bari Weiss, a former conservative opinion editor for the New York Times and one of the signers of the Harper’s statement, had fought against professors deemed too critical of Israel. Another signer, Cary Nelson, had backed the cancellation of Salaita.
It’s not hypocrisy. It’s something worse.
First, if we’re to assume that academics and journalists are at risk of losing their jobs over their controversial opinions, that is because there is a lack of due process and union protections for these workers. If we’re to protect these workers from the threat of termination, the answer isn’t to tell Twitter activists to self-censor every time they see something offensive, but to end the precarity that comes with at-will employment in media and at universities. But we don’t hear too much about this from anti-cancel culture warriors—although the unionized workers at the New Yorker ended at-will employment there, winning a “just cause” provision in their collective bargaining agreement (CNN, 8/5/20).
Accusing your enemy of doing what you’re doing—in this case, right-wing organizations canceling left-wing academics, and then claiming liberals are perpetrating cancel culture—is a form of deflection that riles the right-wing base against intellectuals, but also sends the coded message that the Republican Party will do what it can to silence left-wing critics.
Here’s an illustration: New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens (7/3/20) wrote that the biggest threat to free speech are liberals who seek to curb the expression of those who don’t endorse social justice liberalism. But Stephens had complained to George Washington University professor David Karpf—and, crucially, cc’d the GWU provost—after Karpf joked on Twitter that Stephens was a “bedbug.” Karpf (LA Times, 8/28/19) wrote:
That isn’t a call for polite, civil, rational discourse. It’s an exercise of power. He wanted me and my employer to realize that I had offended an important voice at the paper of record.
Stephens is the cancel culture warrior, not the victim. The message Stephens sent, quite clearly, is that cancel culture is against free speech when social liberals are too vocal about their objections to old hierarchies and the status quo, but it is a perfectly acceptable tool for conservatives to use against the left or critics of conservatism.
This isn’t the only time the right situates itself as the victim when it is actually the offender. Think, for example, about how the far-right spoke about the fear of “jack-booted government thugs” coming to put Christian Americans into FEMA camps in the 1990s. When the Trump administration deployed federal agents to throw Black Lives Matter protesters into unmarked vans, or when federal law enforcement put migrant children into what may fairly be called concentration camps, it’s easy to see hypocrisy on the part of the right-wingers who protested federal police at Ruby Ridge or Waco, but embrace them when used against immigrants or BLM.
But rather than hypocrisy, those fears were a statement of intent. The right’s fear of what could be done to them was an expression of what it hoped to do unto others.
Right-wing hysteria about cancel culture is similar. The Trump administration, the Republican Party and right-wing media (propped up by mainstream media) are telling their base: Yes, we will make liberal professors scared, we will get them fired and use “cancel culture” to suppress speech and academic inquiry we find distasteful or dangerous. Think of it as a declaration of a cultural counter-revolution.
Media should be more honest about this as this subject continues to bubble up.
Featured image: “Cancel culture” cartoon by Chip Bok (6/13/20).
Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party won a decisive victory in the country’s presidential elections on Sunday, with its candidate Luis Arce apparently winning by a large enough margin to avoid a runoff, likely achieving an absolute majority. The leading opposing candidate, neoliberal Carlos Mesa, and the right-wing unelected President Jeanine Áñez congratulated Arce on his victory.
Some in US corporate media, however, failed to describe what was really going on in the country.
When the Wall Street Journal (10/19/20) reported on the MAS victory, for example, it kept to the usual line (FAIR.org, 11/11/19, 11/18/20) about the previously elected president from MAS, Evo Morales, having been “driven from power” in November 2019 after “an election that observers said was marred by irregularities”—avoiding referring directly to Morales’ military overthrow as a “coup.” Instead, the Journal wrote that “Bolivians rose up against Mr. Morales” after he “had grown increasingly authoritarian” and already “ruled” for 14 years.
First off, to say that Morales “ruled” in his country is about as accurate as saying that Barack Obama “ruled” the United States from 2009–17. Until Morales’ ouster, Bolivia was (and hopefully will again be) a functioning democracy. Trying to paint democratically elected leaders as dictatorial autocrats is a time-honored US tradition going back at least as far as Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, removed in a CIA-backed invasion in 1954.
The “irregularities” mentioned are a reference to an analysis by the Organization of American States (OAS), an institution that gets 60% of its budget from the United States. Its analysis, released immediately after the election, expressed “deep concern” about a “hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results.” Their analysis was immediately challenged by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a progressive DC-based think tank, which noted that the OAS provided “absolutely no evidence—no statistics, numbers or facts of any kind”—to support its conclusions. (See CounterSpin, 7/31/20.) The study was later fully debunked, as reported by both the Washington Post (2/27/20), which wrote that “the OAS’s statistical analysis and conclusions would appear deeply flawed,” and the New York Times (6/7/20), which came to similar conclusions (FAIR.org, 3/5/20, 7/8/20). The Wall Street Journal neglected to mention any of this in its reporting.
To say that “Bolivians rose up” against Morales is true only in the narrow technical sense that the coup leaders that forced the president’s removal were from Bolivia. In fact, the situation was far more complicated. After a month-long delay in the vote count, the OAS statement and right-wing protests against the president, military leaders forced Morales to step down from office and flee the country. Morales eventually took refuge in Argentina, barred from returning to Bolivia due to terrorism charges that Human Rights Watch describes as “politically motivated.”
Jeanine Áñez, a member of a far-right party that won just 4% during elections, declared herself the interim president, violently repressing those who protested the move (FAIR.org, 12/13/19). The US State Department supported Áñez’s ascension. At the time, the Wall Street Journal (11/11/19) described these incidents as “a democratic breakout.”
Áñez then began to sell off public resources and take out massive international loans on behalf of the nation. Over the next year, her government delayed elections three times (FAIR.org, 8/6/20) until an unprecedented general strike forced the government to agree to an election. Despite all of this, the Journal and other outlets described the coup regime benignly as a “caretaker government.”
The Associated Press (10/18/20) ran a story reprinted by the Washington Post (10/18/20) that had many of the same omissions as the Wall Street Journal piece, describing the coup against Morales as a “resignation” followed by a “self-exile,” and ignoring US support.
The New York Times (10/19/20) published a piece that was more sympathetic to Morales and his party, but still contained several critical omissions. The Times cited MAS’s popular support as well as its success in reducing Bolivia’s poverty. Their piece cited Morales describing his ouster and the violence that followed as a
“coup,” and did not dispute it.
However, in describing his departure from the country, the Times neglected to mention that Morales was under threat of arrest. After reading that Morales merely “fled the country,” a reader may assume that it was more voluntary than it was. The Times also failed to mention the election’s repeated delays and the general strike that finally brought it into existence.
The Washington Post (10/18/20) did a better job capturing the situation, describing how the right wing “drove the left from power” last year. They wrote that Morales’ supporters called it a coup, but placed “coup” in quotation marks and linked to a Post piece (11/11/19) headlined “After Morales Resignation, a Question for Bolivia: Was This the Democratic Will or a Coup?” The Post’s post-election piece reported on the many delays as well as the US support for Áñez.
The next day, the Post (10/20/20) published a piece that said “Bolivia’s democracy…has delivered Morales’s movement back to power,” and noted positively that “Arce’s victory adds to the sense of momentum behind socialist or left-leaning politics elsewhere in the region.”
It may seem surprising that so much reporting on Bolivia still ignores facts that are critical to understanding the situation there, but US media have a long history of reporting on Latin America that does more to please the State Department than to inform readers.
This week on CounterSpin: Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a column helpfully headlined “The Simple Reason the Left Won’t Stop Losing,” in which David Leonhardt claimed that “left-wing movements…have often prioritized purity over victory,” and encouraged progressives to “break with orthodoxy.” One way to do that? By “announcing that fracking and nuclear energy are crucial to fighting climate change.” That fits with corporate media’s approach to fracking—which, as Joshua Cho noted for FAIR.org, prioritizes the supposed “risks” to the electoral prospects of Democrats who call for banning it over the prospects for human civilization’s survival. We’ll talk about why fracking is still bad with Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Action and Food & Water Watch.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: The fact that no Louisville police officer was even charged with the March 13 murder of Breonna Taylor is only one outrageous aspect of that terrible story that is layered with injustice. Our guest says that our outrage and anger and sorrow for Taylor can be coupled with an understanding of the broader picture of this country’s decades-long “war on drugs” that set the conditions for that night. Matt Sutton is director of media relations at Drug Policy Alliance.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at coverage of the weaponization of the powers of government.PlayStop pop out
In April, the Daily Beast reported that Donald Trump periodically makes an observation about the press: when, from time to time, he softens his tone and conduct, the media will notice and praise him for it. “It’s so easy, can you believe it?” Trump said at a dinner in 2017, after seeing a positive turn in coverage. “All I had to do was be a little nice.” On the occasions Trump acts relatively less obscene, reporters and pundits tend to credit him with a “pivot”; they’ll also make a point of trying to anticipate “pivots”—usually by noting that his advisers have briefed him, ahead of a big speech, to be good, for once. That happened in July, when Trump reinstated his coronavirus briefings. (They had previously been canceled after he told Americans to inject bleach.) And it happened again yesterday, before what should have been Trump and Joe Biden’s third debate of the cycle, but was actually their second, since Trump bailed on one of them. “Will President Trump dial back his aggression?” the New York Times asked. NBC framed the question differently: “A new tone for Trump?”
Sure enough, Trump behaved marginally more respectable than he did during the first debate—which, you will recall, he single-handedly derailed—and won media plaudits. Tim Alberta, of Politico, suggested that the president had “recalibrated his entire approach”; David French, of The Dispatch and Time, wrote that “the different tone is astonishing”; Amy Walter, of the Cook Political Report and The Takeaway, called Trump “very disciplined” and wondered if he can keep it up through election day. Staffers at CNN, the Times, and ABC agreed that Trump was “disciplined,” at least comparatively so; Axios concurred, too, in an article headlined, “Finally, a real debate.” The Times noted that Trump’s better behavior didn’t last all evening, but that he “succeeded” insofar as he “spoke with an inside voice” and “thanked the moderator for letting him chime in and did not sound sarcastic while doing so.”
New from CJR: How the press covered the last four years of Trump
Did we actually get a “real debate”? There were some positives. The moderator—NBC’s Kristen Welker, who became the first Black woman to moderate a debate between presidential nominees since 1992—did better than Chris Wallace, who moderated the first debate of this cycle, and Susan Page, who moderated the subsequent vice-presidential debate. (Welker was aided, in part, by the debate commission’s decision to mute the candidates’ mics for portions of the evening—a bid to limit interruptions that might have helped Wallace, in particular.) Welker pushed Trump repeatedly on how he plans to reunite the migrant families that his administration separated; asked a sharp question about The Talk that Black parents must have with their children about police violence; dedicated an entire segment of the debate to climate change; and asked about environmental racism. Some of these questions elicited instructive (or at least revealing) answers from the candidates. But Welker also wasted time on a question about the foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, Joe’s son, that was, predictably, grist for Trump’s new favorite talking point. (There was no such question about the dodgy conduct of Trump’s children.) And she failed to push back on many obvious Trump lies. Daniel Dale, the CNN fact-checker, observed at one point that Trump was lying “even worse” than during the first debate. So much for discipline.
As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard put it, Trump didn’t “foam at the mouth” last night, but “his performance was still pathological… a vicious cavalcade of dishonor and dishonesty.” Analyzing Trump’s debate style without taking into account the substance of what he said, Shephard wrote, is a fool’s errand, since the two are inseparable; that Trump “delivered his lines with a comparative quietude was just part of the lie.” Many members of the political press can’t—or don’t want to—see this inseparability; they’re much more comfortable focusing on optics, and leaving substance to the side. That isn’t a Trump-era development in political journalism; it’s much older. Still, there’s no doubt that Trump has lowered the bar by which judgments are rendered—only he could turn in a performance as fraudulent and incoherent as last night’s and come out smelling, if not of roses, then at least comparatively clean to many a pundit’s nose. Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau tweeted that the idea of Trump being disciplined may reflect a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” on the part of those who cover him. It may also reflect our desperation to find something new to say.
When it comes to the presidential election, there is a lot that needs to be said on a range of important topics, but, as I wrote earlier this week, much campaign coverage seems determined, instead, to go around in circles with empty speculation and inane observations. The separation of migrant families is a case in point. The fact that more than five-hundred migrant children are still detached from their parents inspired a lot of coverage this week, but many of those stories failed to connect the stakes to the election, even though the Trump administration’s cruelty is manifestly an election story, as well as a human-rights one. Last night, Welker asked about Trump’s policy of separating families at the border, but her question got lost, in much post-debate punditry, amid the “new tone” froth. The good news is that the debates are now over, so there’s no primetime event to distract journalists from discussing the stuff that matters. In theory, at any rate. We may choose to keep wasting time on Trump’s “pivots.”
Below, more on the election:
- 60 Minutes: This week, Trump stormed out of a pre-taped interview with Lesley Stahl, of 60 Minutes. He subsequently threatened, as some kind of “gotcha,” to release White House footage of the interview ahead of its planned broadcast this Sunday; yesterday, he followed through—sharing footage that showed Trump bridling at Stahl’s perfectly-fair questions. CBS News said that the White House’s decision to post its footage online violated a promise to only record the interview for archival purposes.
- Hunter Biden: Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion and news pages published contrasting articles about Hunter Biden. In an op-ed, Kimberley A. Strassel, a member of the Journal’s editorial board, suggested, based on information provided by Tony Bobulinski, a former business partner of Hunter Biden, that Joe Biden was involved in Hunter’s dealings in China—but two Journal news reporters, Andrew Duehren and James T. Areddy, subsequently reported that records they obtained from Bobulinski “don’t show either Hunter Biden or James Biden [Joe’s brother] discussing a role for Joe Biden in the venture.” Variety’s Gene Maddaus observes that the conflicting takeaways reflect “ongoing tension” between the news and opinion sides of the Journal; in July, more than two-hundred Journal staffers wrote to the paper’s publisher accusing the opinion side of a “lack of fact-checking and transparency,” and an “apparent disregard for evidence.”
- The vote: An investigation by VICE found that since 2016, nearly 21,000 Election Day polling locations have closed, for reasons including “a heavy shift to mail voting, coronavirus-related consolidations, cost-cutting measures, and voter suppression.” The trend, VICE’s Cameron Joseph and Rob Arthur report, “could disproportionately impact poor, young and non-white voters.”
- Covers: For the first time in its history, Time magazine removed its name from the top of its cover; it replaced the name with the word “VOTE,” styled like the Time logo. Elsewhere, New York magazine previewed its next covers: there will be four of them, and each will feature twelve “I VOTED” stickers designed by artists including David Hammons, Laurie Simmons, and Amy Sherald. New York will distribute 500,000 of the stickers at bookstores and museums nationwide.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, I worked with Pete Vernon—who wrote this newsletter until I took it over, in October 2018—to review the debates, narratives, and missteps that have defined media coverage of Trump’s presidency. We re-read every newsletter we’ve written since January 2017, and concluded that the “basic practices and rhythms” of coverage have “conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines.”
- Yesterday, following a long period of pressure, a federal court released the transcript of a deposition given—as part of a defamation case, in 2016—by Ghislaine Maxwell, a Jeffrey Epstein associate who was arrested in July on child sexual-abuse charges. (She has denied wrongdoing.) The court redacted the names of powerful men, including Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew, who had dealings with Epstein—but Slate was able to decode the redactions using an alphabetized index that appeared in the transcript.
- On Wednesday night, Fox’s Tucker Carlson and a guest on his show—Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter—attacked Brandy Zadrozny, who covers the Internet and disinformation for NBC News, for doing journalism. Yesterday, NBC hit back, noting that by “smearing” Zadrozny, Fox had “shamefully encouraged harassment and worse.” Later, Zadrozny and her colleague Ben Collins published a story tracking how wild conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden have spread online, including via a pro-Trump site linked to Beattie.
- As Mark Hertsgaard has written, for CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is an important climate story, given her apparent anti-regulation views—but her climate stance has mostly passed under the radar, especially on TV. Evlondo Cooper, of Media Matters for America, reviewed 264 cable-news segments that aired during Barrett’s confirmation hearings. Just thirteen of them mentioned climate change or the environment.
- In June, the New York Daily News fired Anna Sanders, a City Hall reporter, on the grounds, Sanders says, that she revealed confidential personnel information. Now Sanders is suing the paper; its editor in chief, Robert York; and its owner, Tribune Publishing. She alleges that she was wrongfully dismissed for questioning why a male colleague earned more than she did. Katie Robertson has more for the Times.
- For CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project, Lauren Harris examines the toll that the media industry’s long-term financial decline has taken on journalists. “Like a frog boiled slowly, we’ve allowed ourselves to adjust to the calamity, again and again,” Harris writes. “But emphasizing survival over dwindling capacity hurts the industry, and hurts the people who keep it alive.” (To subscribe to her weekly newsletter, click here.)
- This week, the graduate journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, appointed Geeta Anand as its dean; she will be the first woman to fill the post. Anand, who had been serving as interim dean, started teaching at the school in 2018. She previously worked as an India correspondent for the Times and the Journal.
- And Wired’s Kate Knibbs has a great profile of ClickHole, a humor site that “just isn’t as relevant as it used to be” given that many of its jokes still rely on the “outdated viral headline formulations of a decade ago.” ClickHole has financial troubles, too. In February, Cards Against Humanity acquired the site, then transferred majority ownership to ClickHole staff. That looked like a “digital media fairy tale”—but then came the pandemic.
Janine Jackson interviewed True North Research’s Lisa Graves about what’s behind the Amy Coney Barrett nomination for the October 16, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: As we record on October 14, the Senate is still considering the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett has a record of racism, supporting a kind of “separate but equal” arrangement in a case she saw on the Seventh Circuit; of opposing reproductive rights—she signed a letter lamenting the “barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade,” and sought to overturn a Supreme Court precedent allowing states to regulate protesters blocking abortion access; and a record of favoring corporations over workers and consumers—76% of the time, according to one analysis. She ruled to help companies avoid paying overtime to contracted workers, to limit enforcement of age discrimination laws, and to restrict the government’s ability to protect against predatory debt collectors and companies that lie to the public.
Her record is why Barrett was selected to be forced on us, but the forcing is the story of the day. It’s important to know what Barrett stands for and would be likely to do on the court. But it’s kind of as if you were being bullied, and encouraged to devote attention to whether the bully is more likely to land an uppercut or a jab—when you would think the point would be to stop the bullying.
There’s a lot of consequential stuff happening right now, but a change on the Supreme Court is high on the list of lasting consequence, and deserves much, much more than a “Republicans vs. Democrats” style of reporting.
Lisa Graves is executive director and editor-in-chief at True North Research. She joins us now by phone from Wisconsin. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Lisa Graves.
Lisa Graves: Thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.
JJ: Like I say, we should look at Barrett’s extremely conservative, anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-queer record; it explains why she’s in the chair. But to start the story now—This person is up for the court and some people like her but others don’t—is just looking at the shadows on the cave wall at this point, and missing the reality of what’s happening.
So let me just start by asking—it sounds rhetorical, but it’s not: Shouldn’t we get beyond thinking of Republicans who blocked Obama’s Supreme Court appointment, they said because of an approaching election, and now are steamrolling Barrett through because of an approaching election, shouldn’t we stop thinking of them as hypocritical? Wouldn’t it, in general, make more sense to see them as goal-oriented?
LG: That’s a great question and, also, I really appreciate the reference to Plato in your question. I think that this situation, it certainly is hypocritical, but I think it’s much worse than that. It’s a very determined power play to pack our Court, in order to try to reverse precedents that many Americans rely upon. And to do so in a very disingenuous way, by claiming this is merely about the rule of law—which it’s not, it’s actually about overturning rules of law—and by claiming that this person that they’ve chosen is merely going to interpret the law rather than make it, when she’s clearly been chosen for the opposite, with a view that she will unmake the law, unmake precedents.
So I really appreciated Senator Whitehouse’s comments yesterday, in which he talks about the fact that the hearing is very much like a puppet stage, in a way, because you can’t see from that hearing who’s pulling the strings behind the scenes, who’s moving the levers. And he tried to shine a bright light on that, in talking about how she was chosen, and the dark money forces that have been behind choosing people like Amy Barrett for the Court, and also then teeing up cases for those judges to rule upon, in favor of many of the same interests that are funding the confirmation process to get these radically reactionary judges put on our court for lifetime terms.
JJ: Yeah, it seems so important to tell the story simply: Rich people are buying the institutions that will serve their interests, even though they are institutions that we think of as serving the public interest. So let me dig you a little into what the senator was talking about, and ask you directly: Who is Leonard Leo?
LG: Leonard Leo was previously the executive vice president for the Federalist Society, which describes itself as a group of conservative and libertarian lawyers and law students. But really, it’s been a major vehicle that’s been used by the Republicans in the selection process for judicial nominees.
And Leonard Leo is someone who was exposed last year by the Washington Post, which did a deep investigation and found that he was at the center of a network of money that amounted to more than $250 million, over the course of a couple years, to block President Obama’s last nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, in 2016, and to push through Neil Gorsuch as well as Brett Kavanaugh for the bench, nominees of President Trump, and also to push through many judges in the federal courts, the lower federal courts, as well as on state supreme courts.
So who is Leonard Leo? He’s someone who has really been orchestrating this campaign to take over our courts, to capture our courts. And in that Post story, they quoted him, in a closed-door room to funders, talking about how through these appointments, we stand at the precipice of what he called a “revival” of what he described as the “structural Constitution.” And he said that the people in that room, no one had seen the type of revolution in the law that was about to unfold, due to these appointments, and this was before Judge Barrett was nominated.
We’ve already seen that revolution underway. It’s the revolution that really destroyed the power of the Voting Rights Act. It’s the decision by the court to unleash this massive dark money into our political system through Citizens United. And it’s also the decision to have the Supreme Court tell lower courts that they cannot intervene in extreme partisan gerrymandering. That’s just the beginning of this revolution that Leonard Leo’s orchestrating.
But for whom, as you asked? Well, we know that in some of these instances, it’s been a single donation from one entity or person, for example, $17 million from one group, passed in almost its entirety to another group, called the Judicial Crisis Network, that then spent money to try to block President Obama’s nominee and push in someone who they thought would rule favorably to them.
So this is a way in which, as you point out, a handful of extremely rich people who are not known to us, not disclosed to the American people, are almost buying seats. They’re having the effect of basically having Leonard Leo choose who Donald Trump chooses from, like being the chef at a restaurant. He decides who Trump can choose from.
And, quite frankly, we know definitively that Leonard Leo began trying to put Amy Barrett on the circuit court, and then ultimately on the Supreme Court list, in the spring of 2017. He’s not doing that because there’s a belief that she’s going to be a fair and independent judge; he’s doing that because there’s a belief that she will decide in their favor on cases that they want overruled. And that includes not just Roe v. Wade and cases on the rights of LGBTQ Americans, but also, as you point out, cases to undermine our ability in a democracy to regulate corporations. And so that’s his agenda, and there’s more about him I’d love to tell you about, if you have a few minutes, but that’s the sort of baseline of who he is.
JJ: Well, absolutely. And let’s just take it from there. I mean, you’re laying it out: If you want to stay in power, even as you represent, in yourselves and in your ideas, a minority of the population, well, checks and balances are not your friends. And yet here are a lot of us, stuck in eighth grade civics class like mugs, like, Uh, I don’t think they’re supposed to be doing that, you know, or Well, we’ll rely on their civility that they won’t do it next time. It’s kind of silly, and folks are cottoning on to the silliness. Forget a knife, it’s like we’re bringing a furrowed brow to a gunfight.
And that’s why it’s no longer, as of recently, outrageous to talk about expanding the Supreme Court, which you have noted is already not a democratic institution, but to talk about expanding it, because it’s unreflective of the country that it’s supposed to serve. Folks are calling it “packing”—and I think media critics have told folks that that’s a prejudicial way to phrase it—but expansion of the Court, is that one of the responses that we could look to?
LG: Well, I think we have to look at all options and, quite frankly, what’s happening with the Supreme Court and this appointment process of these Trump nominees is particularly unseemly. You have a situation where Trump has chosen Leonard Leo to be a so-called volunteer adviser. In the year 2018, when he took a paycut of nearly $100,000 from the Federalist Society to spend time as a free adviser to Trump and to these other outside groups, he suddenly paid off the mortgage on his house in Northern Virginia, and literally on the eve of the confirmation vote of Brett Kavanaugh to become a justice—this was two years ago last week—he closed on a $3 million mansion in Maine across from the yacht club. So suddenly this man, who filed no financial disclosure forms because he’s not a federal employee, but who has this nearly decisive role with this president in helping determine who gets chosen from for the Supreme Court, is flush with cash. Whose cash?
You know, I think there’s a cloud hanging over all of these nominations, but it’s beyond these nominations, what’s been happening to our Court, because you also have people who’ve been chosen on this claim that they’re going to be so-called “originalists” or “textualists.” You know, these are the same people that have rejected an actual textual interpretation of Constitution, as with the Voting Rights Act. To say that we do not need the protections of the Voting Rights Act in the year 2016, basically, or this past decade, is to be myopic. And you can see that same sort of myopic narrowness in the answers that Judge Barrett has been giving before the Senate.
But the reality is that in this country, we had only a very brief period in the ’50s and ’60s when there were actually judges on the Supreme Court who were willing to fully interpret the terms of that document, including things like that if you have a right to counsel, that means you actually have a right to counsel, and that if we have a representative democracy, that that means “one person, one vote,” that people have a say, that all Americans do, not just a few Americans do.
And case after case, the court finally breathed life into our Constitution, which had been really curtailed by some of the same types of judges that Leonard Leo wants to take us back to, a hundred years ago, to roll back 100 years of legal precedents.
And the other part of that story is that, quite frankly, the court, as you point out, is already packed. This Supreme Court in my lifetime, in the past 50 years, has had 15 nominations confirmed that were made by Republican presidents, and only four that were named by Democratic presidents; 15 to four.
JJ: So we’re really talking about repacking.
LG: Well, unpacking it. And, quite frankly, the other thing that’s happened that’s really astonishing is that this court has a jurisdiction that’s almost entirely discretionary. Under the Constitution, there are a very narrow category of cases that the Supreme Court must hear, like disputes between states, which are actually pretty rare. The entire rest of its docket is entirely a matter of choice, if four judges on that Supreme Court decide they want to hear a case—which basically means they think that they have five votes on a nine-person court, a majority, to overturn it.
What’s happened is that these judges, who’ve been mostly Republican appointees, have been picking and choosing which cases they want to change our laws in, including anti-corruption laws, the campaign finance laws that were struck down in Citizens United, including the Voting Rights Act, which was the decision that the court made in the Shelby case, and more. And so you have these judges choosing, specifically, totally in their own discretion, which areas of law they want to move in the direction they want to move it. And that’s a problem.
But also, this court has nearly 9,000 appeals a year, and it only considers and issues decisions in about 80 of them. So it’s handpicking 80 cases, or it’s going to “resolve a conflict” or move the law, and the cases it’s choosing are ones that advance the partisan political agenda of the party of the president who nominated these judges. And they are moving in a regressive way to strip away Americans’ rights, including our rights to regulate corporations, and the rights for us to have agencies that regulate those corporations, as well as the very essential tools in our democracy.
JJ: There’s a gap between their agenda and their framework of what they want to do, and the public understanding of it, and media play a role there. In terms of issues, I would argue with passion that the day that we recognize that abortion is an economic issue, and stop cordoning it off as culture war fodder, is going to be a great day. But I understand the power of saying, “Hey, fight over reproductive rights, because we know that’s hot button, while we quietly cut off every other right you have,” and then media step in and say, “Well, this one’s controversial, and this one we won’t even talk about.” So the way our attention is directed as a public influences whether we can actually see clearly that agenda that you’re discussing.
LG: That’s exactly right. It’s misdirection; it’s sort of a sleight of hand. And, in fact, the abortion issue is very fundamentally an economic issue, and it’s also just a human autonomy issue, the ability to determine your own destiny by having control of your body. But what’s happened, as you point out, is that this issue is described in the press as a sort of social or cultural war, and the focus on that has allowed them, almost like the camel’s nose under the tent—
LG: —to move through an agenda that then the press largely is not reporting on, or not reporting on it for what it is.
And you can see what it is, in part because Charles Koch, one of the richest men in the world, the billionaire who leads Koch Industries, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money, and money of his fellow billionaires, to try to distort our democracy and our elections, is a big player in this fight over the Supreme Court and who gets on the court. He claims to be pro-choice, but it doesn’t matter, because his real agenda is about stripping our power in our democracy to control corporations, to have controls over them.
As Nancy MacLean wrote about in her book Democracy in Chains, when you hear them talk about “limited government” or “limited constitutional government,” that’s a fancy way of saying “limited democracy.” It means removing from “We the People” the power to make decisions over things like corruption in our elections and how to regulate it, as well as things like how we’re going to mitigate climate change, and whether this court will issue any rulings allowing the federal government to have any jurisdiction over carbon under the types of arguments that Charles Koch has been funding.
And so, it’s a true crisis in our democracy, and our economy. And the debate has been largely twisted into this narrow version of a culture war, when it’s actually about a much broader revolution, a regressive revival—a “revival,” in the words of Leonard Leo—to roll back a century of precedents to before the New Deal, basically, potentially to roll back our worker rights, civil rights and so much more.
JJ: You know, I thought I’d need to bring it back to this. I don’t think I do, I’ll say it anyway. But I would say that sometimes the conversation, even when it’s righteous, can get over-abstract. We get riled up about the process, or even about “democracy,” but it’s not a word on a page that’s being endangered here; democracy isn’t going to die of Covid, or of an unsafe abortion, or of workplace hazards, or of a nursing home malfeasance where they couldn’t have a class action suit. That’s going to be human beings.
I just wish media would take it out of, Well, if you’re a Democrat, you might think…. Like the New York Times’ perfectly good piece, but it said, you know, this ramming through of this confirmation is deepening anger on the left. And I think, if we can’t take it out of that partisan frame, we’re really misunderstanding the importance, the deep importance, of the moment that we’re living through.
LG: I agree with you, and your description is so powerful and evocative. In my work, I’ve seen some of these groups that are funded by Charles Koch push measures, for example, to say that you can’t get emotional damages—pain and suffering damages—except for as a multiplier of your compensatory damages, and apply that rule to nursing homes. People who do not have lost wages, who do not have compensatory damages, basically saying that you can only recover limited pain and suffering, based on how much money you make.
And you can see that in other ways in the Supreme Court, where this court has basically elevated the rights of corporations over the rights of ordinary human beings, including asserting a religious right of corporations that trumps the actual rights of ordinary human beings. In some of these cases about the Affordable Care Act, it’s about saying that a corporation has some sort of religious belief that trumps a woman’s right to access birth control, an IUD; in other cases about the ACA, it’s about a very narrow view, or an expansive view in some ways, of corporate rights over an individual’s right to access just the basics of affordable healthcare to save their lives.
And so these are all issues about our rights and our lives as human beings. And, increasingly, we have a court that is seeing those issues in a very narrow way for humans, but a very expansive way for corporations, which really are artificial creatures that we, as human beings, have the right to control. And so the stakes are high and, as you point out, unfortunately, the media often talk about these things in a very abstract way, and do not talk about the real-world consequences for ordinary people, and there are very huge real-world consequences for ordinary people.
But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that seeing this unfold right now will help awaken people even more to the need for substantial reforms to protect the rights of human beings in this country, and to understand the humanity that our law ought to reflect, versus this very narrow, corporatist view of our country.
JJ: Well, I’m hopeful right along with you.
We’ve been speaking with Lisa Graves. She’s executive director and editor-in-chief at True North Research. They’re online at TrueNorthResearch.org. Lisa Graves, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
LG: Oh, thank you so much. It’s a joy to hear your voice and your analysis, and really be in conversation with you.