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In September 2016, Salena Zito, who was then covering voters in The Heartland, wrote of the then-candidate Donald Trump, in a column for The Atlantic: “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” The phrase quickly slipped into Trumplore. Trump allies, such as Peter Thiel, invoked it to argue that while reporters and fact checkers obsessed over the fine print of Trump’s pronouncements on, say, banning Muslims from the US and building a wall at the southern border, his supporters were hearing more general pledges to, say, reform immigration. Trump critics, such as Dara Lind, then of Vox, complained about the moral and factual slipperiness of such logic—criticisms that were vindicated when Trump moved to literally ban Muslims and literally build his wall almost as soon as he took office. Ever since then, the literally/seriously motif has echoed, Zelig-like, through the press. We’ve heard of Trump being taken seriously and literally, seriously but not literally (by the media this time), and neither seriously nor literally—the latter because, as The Atlantic’s David Frum put it last year, the president’s “words are as worthless as Trump Organization IOUs.”
In large part, the phrase and the many variations thereupon are hard to pin down because Trump himself is hard to pin down. Since taking office, he’s said literally tens of thousands of things that aren’t true while also pursuing his more extreme campaign promises, while also threatening core tenets of American democracy, while also serving as a perpetual object of derision. Last Thursday, he handed us a paradigmatic example of such contradictions. Trump wrote in a tweet that mail-in voting is fraudulent, and suggested that the presidential election should be delayed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.” Literally, the tweet was a complete mess. There’s no evidence mail-in voting is compromised, and Trump’s differentiation of the practice from absentee voting (“which is good”) made no sense, since the terms are interchangeable. Also, Trump does not have the power to delay the election.
Related: Drive-by journalism in Trumplandia
Some Trump boosters employed a version of the seriously-not-literally defense: the tweet, they said, was a joke, which nonetheless raised valid broader concerns about mail-in voting. (Again, no.) Many other observers, however, took the missive extremely seriously. Not all of them were the usual suspects. Leading Republicans who aren’t in the habit of slapping Trump down swiftly did so; Steven Calabresi—a cofounder of the right-wing Federalist Society, who defended the president against Mueller and impeachment—wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that the tweet was “fascistic” and “itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again.” Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, appeared on cable news to outline bipartisan efforts, in which he is involved, to wargame what might happen if Trump refuses to leave office. (“This man could be serious,” Wilkerson said.) Trump’s tweet continued to drive discussion on the Sunday shows. On CNN, Dana Bash asked Jim Clyburn, a top House Democrat, about remarks he made comparing Trump to Hitler. Clyburn clarified that he thinks Trump is like Mussolini. (Putin is like Hitler.)
Also on the Sunday shows, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, attempted to reverse course. “We’re going to hold an election on November 3,” he told CBS, “and the president is going to win.” Trump’s tweet, however, is not so easy to walk back. In recent weeks, he’s repeatedly sown disinformation about mail-in voting, and his campaign has repeatedly refused to confirm that it plans to accept the election result as legitimate; two weeks ago, Trump himself said as much, during an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace. The pattern is clear: Trump is on course to lose the election, and is working ahead of time to discredit the result.
On ABC yesterday, Jonathan Swan, of Axios, said that his recent reporting, including his own interview with Trump, clearly suggests as much. “You could see a vote on election day in which Donald Trump is doing very well—because his people have gone to the polls and Democrats have overwhelmingly voted by mail—and then, as the results start coming in with the mail vote, in the next couple of days, Donald Trump will say, See, I told you so, it’s fraudulent, and then try and launch various forms of litigation,” Swan said. “I think that’s where this is heading.” The press can’t see the future, of course, but Trump is making it abundantly clear that he won’t leave office without a fight, and a dirty one if necessary. That demands to be taken both literally and seriously—even if the president can’t actually postpone election day itself.
In December 2016, after Trump had won, the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg called the seriously-not-literally distinction “fairly ridiculous hogwash as a prescription for how to treat an actual president, or president-elect, of the United States.” As an example of a claim that demanded to be taken literally (and debunked on such terms), Goldberg referenced Trump’s absurd lie that millions of people had voted illegally for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. That claim was swiftly and brutally fact-checked; nonetheless, some pundits ridiculed it, given that Trump was, after all, complaining about an election he’d just won. This was ridiculous—but it also had the effect of convincing many voters that American elections are rigged long before 2020 loomed into view. In hindsight, we all should have taken Trump’s election lies—indeed, his campaign as a whole—uniformly and urgently seriously back in 2016. Judging by the stern recent coverage of Trump’s tweet, we seem to have learned a collective lesson since then. We mustn’t relapse.
Below, more on the election:
- Managing expectations, public edition: On CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday, host Brian Stelter asked journalists and experts what the press can do to help ensure public confidence in the election. “People in the media should be letting the public know that a slow count is a fair count, and that trying to rush things is just going to create sloppiness,” Rick Hasen, an election-law specialist at the University of California, Irvine, said. Erin Geiger Smith, the author of Thank You For Voting, added, “I really think any story that we write talking about the problems has to also answer the question: Am I giving the voter the information that they need to make sure that their vote can count?” (ICYMI, I rounded up voting-coverage tips from Hasen and others in June.)
- Managing expectations, journalist edition: For his latest column, Ben Smith, media writer at the Times, asked executives, anchors, and analysts in major newsrooms what might happen if/when the election result is delayed. “What the moment calls for, most of all, is patience. And good luck with that,” Smith writes. “Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations—rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites—that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day.”
- A break with convention: Over the weekend, Frank E. Lockwood, of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, reported that Republican officials are planning to totally exclude reporters from the party’s nominating convention, which is slated to be held, in a stripped-back kinda way, in Charlotte, North Carolina, later this month. The officials blamed restrictions imposed by the pandemic, but many reporters smelled a pretext to slight the press. Yesterday, a spokesperson for the convention appeared to backtrack, saying that “no final decision has been made” on media access.
- Enemies, foreign and domestic: In recent days, US intelligence officials and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign have confirmed that foreign actors have already sought to compromise election infrastructure and campaign communications, and are busily spreading disinformation on social media. When Steve Peoples, of the AP, asked the Trump campaign whether it has been handed any election materials by foreign actors, the campaign refused to say. Biden’s campaign, by contrast, replied, “Absolutely not.”
- Department of Yeah, Right: Last week, John F. Harris, of Politico, assessed the possibility that Trump could take a completely different course of action to disputing the election result—by bailing on his reelection bid altogether. “Even if one doesn’t really think Trump will drop out of the race—as a proselytizer of the theory I acknowledge it is a stretch—it is worth examining the reasons he just might, as a way of illuminating the bleakness of his situation,” Harris writes.
Other notable stories:
- Last week, Shane Harris, of the Post, reported that the intelligence division of the Department of Homeland Security compiled and distributed dossiers on two journalists covering the federal response to protests in Portland, Oregon. According to Harris and Nick Miroff, Brian Murphy, the acting head of DHS’s intelligence division, has since been removed from his post and reassigned, pending an investigation. Over the weekend, Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan reported that the intelligence division has recently skirted scrutiny from an internal civil-liberties watchdog that previously reviewed its output.
- For the Times, Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman ran the rule over the media-bashing tactics of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary. “The White House briefings have become insignificant to the job of the press corps and even to the president, who doesn’t always watch the theatrical displays done mostly for him,” Haberman wrote on Twitter. Separately, Haberman also hit out at Dr. Deborah Birx, a senior White House health official who said yesterday that the Times failed to contact her for a coronavirus story that painted her in a bad light. This, Haberman said, was untrue.
- For CJR, Pat Nabong spoke with Rosem Morton, a full-time nurse who is also a photographer. National Geographic recently published a series of images documenting Morton’s work during the pandemic. “I think both roles offer you a lot of exercises in empathy,” Morton says, of being both a medical worker and a journalist. “As a nurse, in a caring profession, you always care about what the other person is feeling and thinking.”
- Today marks one year since a gunman murdered 23 Hispanic people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, one of two mass shootings in the space of a few hours. (The other was in Dayton, Ohio.) Yesterday, the El Paso Times published a special section on the massacre, including reflections from 911 call-center staff, trauma surgeons, and a Mexican family that is still struggling. “It feels like we’re in a nightmare,” the family said.
- On Friday, News Corp revealed that James Murdoch, son of Rupert, has resigned from its board—all but cutting any formal tie to his father’s media empire. James, who has distanced himself from the conservative politics of the Murdoch press, including around climate change, blamed “certain editorial content” and “other strategic decisions” for his exit. Some observers reckon News Corp’s financial performance was also at issue.
- BuzzFeed has established a new site, BuzzFeed Shopping, to sell products to consumers directly, without routing them elsewhere. Media companies including BuzzFeed have long earned commission by hosting affiliate links, which steer readers to third-party shopping sites—but changing consumer behavior has publishers wondering whether they can cut out the middle man. The Journal’s Ann-Marie Alcántara has more.
- For CJR, Tony Haile offers local outlets a roadmap for competing with the Times, which is increasingly dominant in terms of subscriptions. “Local publishers may not believe that they are competing with the Times, but the Times believes it is competing with them,” Haile writes. Fighting back will require “leveraging networks, rethinking how content works in a paywalled universe, and unlearning some of the lessons of the open internet.”
- The British government is moving to hire a White House-style press secretary to front televised briefings. Opposition lawmakers aren’t impressed—they claim the appointment is a bid to skirt Parliamentary scrutiny, and may fall foul of rules banning political staffers from engaging in “controversy.” Also in the UK, the BBC took down a video depicting Rishi Sunak, Britain’s finance minister, as a superhero following allegations of bias.
- And Matt Flegenheimer, of the Times, has a mischievous anecdote about Sen. Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois Democrat who is in contention to be Joe Biden’s running mate. Last year, after Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign hired away one of her top comms aides, Duckworth taped a fake media interview slamming Buttigieg, and had it sent to the aide. The whole thing turned out to be an elaborate prank.
Barring last-minute objections, this is the week that another hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management, takes over another newspaper company. Justifiable angst has been permeating newsrooms that are under the ownership or influence of funds — Alden Global Capital especially — but I am not so sure everyone who is worried understands the basics of these […]
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The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here. The past week was not a good one for President Donald Trump. The number of COVID-19 deaths passed 150,000. Nine states set one-day records for COVID-19 cases. Eleven set single-day records for deaths. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman […]
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‘When the heart gets filtered up through the camera’: Vietnam War photographers on how to cover COVID better
This project was borne out of a deep admiration for the tireless work of student journalists. As we at the Duke Chronicle worked to document the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found strength in the fact that, while physically fractured, we were not alone. Thanks to the collaboration of media platforms from all 50 […]
Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. You may think of this incident as a coalmine canary this week. The very day, in fact […]
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Alma Matters is a Poynter newsletter designed to provide ideas, news and insight to those in the journalism education community. Subscribe here to get Alma Matters delivered to you. Today I want to talk to you about how much I’ve been thinking about journalism education — really, about you — since this pandemic began. My personal lockdown […]
The post The future of journalism education looks unclear, but Poynter’s here to help appeared first on Poynter.
March 4, 2020, was a Wednesday night, which meant print production at the Duke Chronicle office in Durham, North Carolina. Like other student journalists across the country, physically gathering to prepare the next day’s paper was a routine — and, unbelievably now — mundane ritual for our staff. Our office was a hub for discussion, […]
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The Washington Post’s first public demographic report reveals its percentage of Black employees is falling
Like the old tale of the blind men describing an elephant, Wednesday’s congressional antitrust hearing with the heads of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook differed dramatically according to your perspective. The Wall Street Journal said the six-hour hearing showed that there was room for compromise between the way Republicans perceive the technology giants and the way that Democrats do. But Slate and a number of other outlets pointed out how most of the Republican members of Congress spent their time talking about alleged bias by Facebook and YouTube aimed at conservatives (something for which there is absolutely no evidence) rather than antitrust. The Verge’s Casey Newton said the “lunatic whipsawing between companies, issues, and conspiracy theories” made the hearing feel like a social media feed, and not in a good way: “Every question shouted, every answer interrupted, nothing truly ventured, and very little learned. Polarized and polarizing.” (Newton also said that, in the end, he came away “mostly heartened” by the idea that Congress might finally be prepared to do its job as an antitrust regulator.)
Part of the problem—as with the elephant—was that the hearing was just too massive, sprawling, and unfocused. As Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times pointed out, each of the tech companies should probably have had its own hearing, since the antitrust issues that apply to each one are very different. (Will Oremus of One Zero said sources told him the technology companies themselves pressed for a hearing with all four, as a way of muddying the waters. If true, then their attempt was successful.) Even at six hours, once you subtract the grandstanding and irrelevant questioning by people like Republican Matt Gaetz—who seemed most interested in whether the companies shared what he called “American values”—or the sad spectacle of Rep. Sensenbrenner asking Zuckerberg why Facebook took down a comment from Donald Trump Jr. (something Twitter did), there wasn’t much time for more than one or two questions about actual anticompetitive behavior.
The fact that there were even a few of these was held up by some as a triumph—Prospect.org called it “The Triumphant Return of Congress”—something that says a lot about just how low expectations are when it comes to these kinds of hearings. And yes, it was better than the one where Facebook was asked how it made money and Zuckerberg responded, as if speaking to a toddler, “Senator, we sell ads.” (On Thursday, the day after the hearing, the company reported that its revenues rose to $18 billion in the most recent quarter.) One of the stars of the day was Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who came equipped with voluminous notes, including some of the 1.3 million documents that Congress has accumulated over the year or so this antitrust investigation has been underway. She pinned Zuckerberg with questions about his acquisition of Instagram, including emails that showed he was planning to build a competitor if the company didn’t sell, and the CEO could only stammer, “I’m not sure what you mean by threaten.” She also asked some tough questions of Amazon, including pressing chief executive Jeff Bezos on whether the company used internal sales data to launch competing products. (Bezos said this is against the rules, and he’s looking into it.)
There were other interesting tidbits that came out of the testimony and were directly related to antitrust, although they were arguably lost to most amid the barrage of interruptions and senseless questioning from some members of Congress. For example, Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook cut off Pinterest’s access to its API because it was a social media competitor, but didn’t cut off Netflix’s access. As antitrust expert Hal Singer pointed out on Twitter, “discriminatory refusals to deal are illegal under the antitrust laws.” Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” noted that the purchase of Instagram, which seemed clearly designed to take out a potential competitor, could also be illegal under current antitrust laws, since it is “a violation of the Sherman Act to buy out a direct competitor and protect a monopoly.” Although there are those, including Alec Stapp of the Progressive Policy Institute, who have argued (with some justification) that the concern about the Instagram purchase suffers from “hindsight bias,” since virtually no one saw Instagram as a competitor at the time it was acquired, when it had only thirty million users and zero revenue.
For all of the congratulatory pieces about how hard-hitting Congress was with its questioning, however, or how the hearing showed that Republicans and Democrats are finally on the same page about the need to take action, very few pointed out that there is a conspicuous lack of information about what exactly Congress should do about any of this. And that’s because antitrust law for the past forty years or so has focused on consumer harm when it comes to measuring anticompetitive behavior, and there is precious little evidence of consumer harm stemming from any of the behavior Congress is so concerned about—at least in the way that harm is usually defined. All of the tech titans provide their services for free, and they all argued quite convincingly that no one is forced to use any of their websites. Therefore, the impact of the hearings “will be limited by antitrust laws that were created a century ago and that are imperfect for corralling internet firms,” as the New York Times put it.
Some experts—including those we spoke to for a discussion series on these issues on CJR’s Galley platform last year—argue that the concept of harm under antitrust laws should be defined more broadly, so that things like invasion of privacy would count. But until laws are changed, it’s going to be very difficult to apply that kind of standard, which makes all of those hard-hitting questions (all three or four of them) seem somewhat moot.
Here’s more on the tech hearings:
- Airing of grievances: Mike Masnick of Techdirt pointed out in his analysis of the hearing that the absurdity of some of the questioning was revealed when several Republican lawmakers talked about how they were furious at Facebook and YouTube for removing a video promoting hydroxychloroquine (the one with the doctor who believes that some diseases are caused by demons), while Democrats were upset that Facebook didn’t take it down fast enough, and that more than twenty million people saw it before it was removed. Masnick also noted that the hearing involved “very little discussion of actual antitrust. There was plenty of airing of grievances, however, frequently with little to no basis in reality.”
- Sleekest of all: The Markup has a breakdown of the lines of questioning directed at each of the tech firms, and according to a scorecard from The Verge, Apple arguably got off the lightest of any of the companies in the hearing, if only by volume of questions: Tim Cook got just thirty-five, compared to fifty-nine for Bezos, sixty-two for Zuckerberg, and sixty-one for Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The New York Times had a live-blog of the hearing, and the Washington Post’s fashion critic wrote about it as well, saying Pichai “was the sleekest of the lot in both appearance and setting. He wore an elegant charcoal suit and matching tie and was well-framed behind a desk that sat in an office that looked like it had been inspired by the West Elm catalogue.”
- Destroy mode: Wired magazine looked at the documents about Facebook’s pursuit of Instagram, including a message that Matt Cohler—venture capitalist, Instagram board member, and former Facebook employee—sent Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom after Zuckerberg had expressed an interest in buying it. “Will he go into destroy mode if I say no?” Systrom asked. Cohler replied, “Probably.” Gilad Edelman of Wired gave the hearings a B-minus: “With the notable exceptions of Republicans Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz, who relentlessly flogged the hobbyhorse of supposed anti-conservative bias on the tech platforms, the committee proved that this is a serious and legitimately bipartisan investigation. But the hearing also illustrated how complicated the cases against these companies are, and how difficult they are to make in the brief soundbites that form the basic currency of American political debate.”
Other notable stories:
- The Department of Homeland Security has compiled “intelligence reports” about the work of American journalists covering protests in Portland, in what current and former officials called an alarming use of a government system meant to share information about suspected terrorists and violent actors, according to the Washington Post. Over the past week, the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has disseminated three Open Source Intelligence Reports to federal law enforcement agencies and others, summarizing tweets written by two journalists—New York Times reporter Mike Baker and Lawfare editor Benjamin Wittes—and noting they had published leaked, unclassified documents. Wittes wrote on Twitter that he is considering legal options.
- The Nation says that it has internal documents that show the Department of Homeland Security recently instructed employees on how to arrest journalists and expose them to crowd suppressants like tear gas without being legally liable. It also delineates which legal protections are not extended to “normal protestors,” the Nation report says. The document tells DHS officials how to interpret a temporary restraining order issued last week by US District Judge Michael Simon in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleging that DHS officers had been attacking journalists in Portland.
- Google, Facebook, and other digital platforms could be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines if they fail to comply with a media bargaining code released by Australia’s competition regulator on Friday, The Guardian reports. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was asked to develop the mandatory code in April after negotiations between the digital platforms, the ACCC, and media companies stalled, and media companies experienced a sharp fall in ad revenue due to covid-19.
- Steve Calabresi—cofounder of the Federalist Society, a professor of law at Northwestern, and a staunch conservative who called the investigation led by Robert Mueller unconstitutional—wrote in the New York Times that Donald Trump’s tweet about potentially postponing the election was “fascistic” and “is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate.”
- The Oregonian says it has even more documentation to support a previous story from 2019 about the Pac-12 conference signing a deal with the Los Angeles Times that promised to steer $100,000 in advertising to the paper in return for coverage of the conference. The paper now says that it has “internal communications from both the Pac-12 and Los Angeles Times that reveal new details of the partnership.” The Pac-12, which long denied there was a formalized agreement, for the first time now acknowledges it signed a contract to provide advertising revenue to the Times, according to the paper. “Emails, memos, and a human resources grievance show how the Pac-12 promised special access for the LA Times reporter and how the partnership set off alarm bells inside the news organization.”
- A mandatory Pentagon training course sent to the entire force and aimed at preventing leaks refers to protesters and journalists as “adversaries,” according to a report from Politico. The briefing is part of a fictional scenario designed to teach Defense Department personnel how to better protect sensitive information. The course, which was created originally for a select group of officials in 2010, is part of Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s force-wide effort to improve “operational security,” or opsec, and clamp down on leaks, Politico says.
- Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab has written an open letter to the new chief executive of the New York Times, Meredith Kopit Levien, asking her to “do more to help save local news in the United States.” Among other things, Benton asks the paper to share some of its ad-targeting data: “The Times has invested a lot of time and resources into developing a robust set of first-party data that will let advertisers target any of 45 distinct audience segments, and those slices are only going to get thinner and more numerous. Could you find a way to extend that data umbrella to high-quality local news organizations?”
- Nina Berman writes for CJR about the freelance photographers who have been covering the protests in Portland, and some of the dangers they have faced in doing so. “Numerous photojournalists covering the Portland protests have reported bodily injuries from munitions and chemical weapons, as well as direct physical assaults. Increasingly, such violence directed at journalists seems inevitable—a matter of when, not if—as President Trump deploys federal agents to install his version of law and order.” Mason Trinca, a freelance photographer who has covered the protests for the New York Times, says, “They have been shooting a lot more aggressively, a lot more flash-bangs.”
- The Philadelphia Public School Notebook is joining forces with Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization with a national reach, to launch Chalkbeat Philadelphia. According to a statement, the two nonprofits started thinking about a partnership years ago when Notebook cofounder and former editor Paul Socolar and Chalkbeat’s cofounder and CEO Elizabeth Green talked about industry concerns and goals. “We always saw the potential synergy because our programmatic work is so aligned, and we found ways to be supportive of each other’s work,” says Socolar. “The organizations are working to accomplish similar missions. The timing to partner formally seems right now.”
The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here. By now, you’re probably already aware of the tweet that President Donald Trump sent out Thursday morning that asked if the election should be delayed because mail-in voting could not be trusted. Here’s the exact tweet: “With Universal […]
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Editor’s note: PolitiFact, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, is fact-checking misinformation about the coronavirus. This article is republished with permission, and originally appeared here. If your time is short A video from Breitbart shows a group of doctors airing unproven conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. Before social media platforms removed it, the video was viewed […]
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This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here. From the outside looking in, it has appeared that Tribune Publishing had been accepting the growing influence of its largest shareholder, hedge fund Alden Global Capital. But a Securities and Exchange Commission […]
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In Chicago, the city’s new Racial Equity Rapid Response Team is helping minority residents cope with the coronavirus by partnering with established community groups such as West Side United that were working on health equity issues before the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, efforts are underway to enlist churches in Pittsburgh and elsewhere to help test for […]
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People who get their news from social media are less knowledgeable about politics and coronavirus, and more likely to consume misinformation
Newsonomics: The New York Times’ new CEO, Meredith Levien, on building a world-class digital media business — and a tech company
Yesterday, four of the most powerful men on earth—Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook; Jeff Bezos, of Amazon; Tim Cook, of Apple; and Sundar Pichai, of Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube—were dragged to Capitol Hill (well, a videoconference) to answer to a subcommittee of the House of Representatives. As well as allegations of monopolistic practices, abuses of privacy, and political bias, lawmakers asked about the spread of misinformation on social media, including content related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, grilled Zuckerberg on a nonsense-stuffed COVID video that went massively viral earlier this week before Facebook pulled it down. Cicilline accused Facebook of exploiting such harmful content to juice engagement. Zuckerberg denied this. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, also asked about the incident. He described a claim from the video as “a legitimate matter of discussion,” and wanted to know why Facebook had punished Donald Trump, Jr., for sharing it. Zuckerberg gently replied that Twitter, not Facebook, had acted against Trump, Jr. So such hearings go.
The content that perturbed Cicilline and Sensenbrenner, for different reasons, was published on Monday by Breitbart, and featured a group of doctors, in immaculate medical garb, making far-from-immaculate claims, including that masks don’t work against COVID-19, and that hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug beloved of the president and his boosters, is a COVID “cure,” which, by all credible accounts, it is not. As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer has reported, one of the doctors in the video—Stella Immanuel, a physician and religious minister in Houston—has claimed, in the past, that having sex with demons and witches can cause gynecological problems, that alien DNA is used in human medicine, and that aliens and reptiles help run the government, which, by the way, is working to vaccinate us against religion. Immanuel thanked the Daily Beast for Sommer’s story, which she said did “a great job summarizing our deliverance ministry and exposing incubus and succubus.” (Don’t ask.) She also invited the Beast (italics definitely necessary) to contact her should it ever find itself in need of “deliverance from these spirits.”
I digress. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all removed the video, citing various violations of their COVID-19 misinformation policies and general terms of service, but not before it had found some high-profile fans. Madonna shared it, and called Immanuel her “hero.” President Trump shared variants of the video; Twitter eventually scrubbed it from his account, though it didn’t temporarily block the president from tweeting, as it had done with his son, because the president only retweeted the video, whereas Trump, Jr., uploaded it himself. At a briefing on Tuesday, the president declared himself “very impressed” with Immanuel. When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pressed him on Immanuel’s past claims, Trump walked out. And so such briefings go.
Junk about the coronavirus keeps cycling through our information ecosystem. The news media bears responsibility for that; as David Leonhardt, of the New York Times, put it yesterday, there are many reasons why the US has a worse COVID outbreak than any other rich country, “but one of them is the size and strength of right-wing media organizations that frequently broadcast falsehoods.” Flotsam washes from dark corners of the web right into conservative institutions—to cite one recent example, a COVID conspiracy video called Plandemic went viral online, leading Sinclair, the local-news chain, to interview one of its stars for a segment it planned to broadcast to millions of Americans. Under immense pressure, it reversed course.
Such dynamics invite coverage from the reality-based media; we make clear that the claims we’re covering are bogus, but we are still, in the eyes of many information experts, contributing to a form of seepage. By the time one cycle is done, a new one has begun. As Casey Newton, of The Verge, pointed out this week, the Immanuel video “racked up nearly three times the views that the most-shared Plandemic video did in half the time.” We covered that. Then Congress got involved, and we covered Congress getting involved. Rinse. Repeat.
Despite their COVID misinformation policies, social media companies could act much more quickly to remove harmful content, or at least limit its virality. The many calls for such action come amid a broader period of reckoning for the tech giants. Facebook, in particular, has faced loud complaints, including a staff walkout and a boycott by advertisers, about its laissez-faire approach to hate, including posts by Trump; others, including Zuckerberg, have argued that it isn’t Facebook’s role to interfere with political speech. In many ways, the problem of COVID misinformation is part of the same conversation. The threatened shooting of protesters and the threat of the virus both involve potential harm, albeit in different ways. And medicine is inseparable from politics, especially right now.
Still, there is much that is fraught about the concept of scientific misinformation, specifically, and what we expect tech platforms to do about it. In recent months, Facebook has been steering users who share junk science to authoritative sources, including the World Health Organization. The WHO, obviously, is more credible than a demon-sex doctor—and some COVID claims (Hello, Bleachgate!) are obviously wrong, obviously harmful, and should not be circulated. Somewhere adjacent to the Breitbart-video controversy, however, is an extremely messy debate about what constitutes “misinformation” about the coronavirus, and who gets to decide that. The WHO has by no means had a perfect pandemic. Credible health officials and experts have repeatedly changed their minds in perfectly good faith. Is it “misinformation” to say masks don’t work? Many scientists would argue the evidence is now clear—and yet, a matter of weeks ago, many of the same scientists were saying that masks don’t work, or at least that it was an open question. What’s the evidentiary threshold after which a claim stops being, to borrow very loosely from Sensenbrenner, “a legitimate matter of discussion,” and starts being dangerous? How does the identity and motivation of the person making the claim factor into this calculus? Again, the case of the demon-sex doctor feels clear. But a credible institutional affiliation is not a failsafe guide to trustworthiness.
These questions lack definitive answers. Without wishing to sound defeatist, it strikes me that our present information climate is yet another tragedy in this year of tragedies. The emergence of a new virus requires us to embrace the scientific process, in all its messiness and flux. Science is not intended to be reducible to an official proclamation or Facebook fact-check label.
Social-media companies are certainly culpable for not acting quickly enough when a Plandemic or Breitbart video comes along. More so, however, they’re culpable for creating an information climate that disincentivizes the epistemic practices we need at a time like this, and incentivizes instead the weaponizing tactics of malicious actors. Cicilline’s question to Zuckerberg nailed that tragic context. Sensenbrenner’s glided right past it, despite his invocation of the demands of science. That’s more concerning than the fact he asked the wrong guy why he banned Don, Jr.
Below, more on the coronavirus and misinformation:
- Tragedy upon tragedy: Yesterday, the confirmed coronavirus death toll in the US passed 150,000. There isn’t much more to say about that figure, except that it’s likely an underestimate. After the confirmed count passed 100,000, a little over two months ago, I wrote for CJR about the arbitrariness of death milestones.
- Making things worse: On Tuesday, American officials said that the Russian government is using English-language websites to exacerbate misinformation about the coronavirus in the US in the run-up to the presidential election in November. The AP’s Eric Tucker has more details.
- Goh figure: Yesterday, Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Trumpy Republican from Texas, tested positive for COVID-19. As several prominent headlines reported, Gohmert has refused repeatedly to wear a mask, yet he said in a TV interview yesterday that wearing a mask may have given him COVID. Gohmert told his staff of his diagnosis in person, while wearing a face covering; one of his aides subsequently emailed Politico’s Playbook team claiming that mask-wearing staffers in Gohmert’s office have been “berated.” The Playbook authors noted, in the same dispatch, that the fact Congress wasn’t enforcing mask-wearing was putting journalists and others in the complex at risk. Later in the day, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, finally ordered all members and staff to wear masks at all times.
- Meanwhile, in the news business: The Journalism Crisis Project, an initiative led by CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, found more than 100 instances of pay cuts in newsrooms since the pandemic began. For the project’s weekly newsletter, Lauren Harris writes that such cuts “have allowed many outlets to retain staff and continue their work” but constitute “a momentary fix that cannot last forever.”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Kate Brown, the Democratic governor of Oregon, said that federal agents will withdraw from the streets of Portland starting today. The Trump administration said its exit will depend on certain actions being taken by state police; still, having initially believed its crackdown on protesters to be good campaign fodder, the White House has come to see it as a political “liability,” the Times reports. Even if federal agents do swiftly leave Portland, of course, their aggressive tactics will live on. On Tuesday, a video of plainclothes NYPD officers bundling a protester into an unmarked van went viral, in an echo of the incidents that focused national attention on Portland. Gothamist has more.
- On Monday, with 99 days to go until election day, the editorial board of the New York Daily News debuted a new series, “99 reasons to dump Trump.” It will publish one reason per day through November. (The series echoes a step taken in 1991 by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which I wrote about on Monday.) Also Monday, The Guardian debuted a similar project, “100 days to save the earth,” counting down to the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, which is slated for the day after the election.
- John Brennan, the former CIA director and caustic Trump critic, has a book out in the fall. While writing it, Brennan asked if he could see his official CIA records. In the past, similar requests have been granted, but Brennan’s was denied; he later learned that Trump barred intelligence officials from sharing classified information with him, a move Brennan says “chilled” his First Amendment rights. The Post’s Shane Harris has more.
- There’s more turmoil at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where the guild representing staffers moved to initiate a strike after management implemented a union contract without the guild’s agreement. Pittsburgh City Paper’s Ryan Deto has more. In other union news, staff at Hearst Magazines voted by a wide margin to unionize following a tough, protracted campaign. (The company’s president, Troy Young, resigned last week.)
- For BuzzFeed, Elamin Abdelmahmoud writes that coverage of Kanye West often fails to deal compassionately with his mental health. West, who has spoken publicly about living with bipolar disorder, has been in the news a lot lately, not least after he said he would run for president. “We don’t have a shared language for when a celebrity is not doing well in public,” Abdelmahmoud writes. “It sure as hell doesn’t look like a smirking headline inviting you to enjoy the Kanye circus.”
- In a blog post this week, Andrew Yang, who ran in the Democratic presidential primary, reflected on coverage of his campaign. “Before running, I had a relatively naïve point of view where I thought journalists would simply report on what they saw.” Instead, he writes, many reporters work to “reinforce particular candidates and narratives and dismiss others. They don’t just report on the news—they form it.”
- Meduza, an independent Russian news site, assesses the outputs of a deal struck by China and Russia to funnel official propaganda through each other’s state media. The arrangement is not without complications. China blocked an article bylined by Vladimir Putin. And its propaganda work in Russia is understaffed and ignorant of local context.
- Yesterday, authorities in Morocco arrested Omar Radi, an independent journalist; he was subsequently charged with conspiring with foreign actors and with rape. Radi denies the charges, and the Committee to Protect Journalists suspects that they may be retaliatory. Last month, Amnesty International reported that Moroccan officials hacked Radi’s phone.
- And for Nieman Reports, Dale Keiger argues that protest songs are a form of activist journalism. They “report events, document injustice, and prompt questions. They comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Keiger writes. “Protest singers are muckrakers.”
Covering the climate crisis requires the ability to look in many different directions at once, and reconcile them. Right now, it requires making room for urgent climate stories—from hurricanes in North America and record heat in Siberia to recently-updated future projections for global heating—amid an intensely crowded news cycle. As I wrote last week, it requires identifying and teasing out the intimate structural similarities and connections between the impact of climate change and this moment’s two biggest stories, the coronavirus pandemic and the movement for Black lives. It also requires, as Time’s Justin Worland suggested recently, looking forward in time, to imagine how future generations might assess the climate action we did and didn’t take in this historic year, and what we can still do now to influence the judgment of history.
And it requires looking back in time—to understand the roots of the ways we talk about climate change today, and how that legacy continues to influence our coverage. To that end, two recent studies are instructive. They shed light, respectively, on major outlets’ long-term indulgence of climate skepticism and the more recent impact of improved climate coverage in TV meteorology.
The former study was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Rachel Wetts, an assistant professor at Brown University, took nearly 1,800 climate press releases that were issued, between 1985 and 2014, by business, government, and advocacy groups, and ran them through plagiarism-detection software to see how often they were cited in three widely-circulated US newspapers: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Wetts found that despite press releases discouraging action on climate change being relatively rare, the three papers were nearly twice as likely to cite them as releases advocating climate action, which were disproportionately ignored. She also found that releases issued by big businesses were more likely to be cited than those issued by groups that have scientific expertise, such as the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the American Geophysical Union. (The full, paywalled study is here. Grist also has a useful summary.)
Discouragingly, Wetts reported no meaningful improvement in her findings in more recent years, and found that the presence of the Journal, whose editorial orientation skews conservative, did not disproportionately inform her results. Instead, she suspects that traditional norms of journalistic objectivity (those again) have encouraged major outlets to channel the notion of a climate “debate” in their coverage, even though the science has been increasingly clear that there are not two sides to the question. “My findings suggest that journalists continue to provide ‘false balance’ on the issue of climate change, despite some scholars’ claims that this practice is a thing of the past,” Wetts writes. The study, she adds, also offers further evidence that “the structural power of business interests lends them heightened visibility in policy debates.”
By contrast, the latter study, published recently in Weather, Climate, and Society, a journal of the American Meteorological Society (and available for free here), offers a more positive assessment of a different area of climate coverage. The authors—academics from George Mason, Colorado State, and Ohio State universities, as well as a researcher from the AMS, and Bernadette Woods Placky of Climate Central, an independent group of scientists and journalists—assessed the impact of Climate Matters, a program, launched nationally in 2013 by George Mason and Climate Central with support from the AMS and two federal agencies, that helps TV meteorologists incorporate climate science into their broadcasts. (Climate Central is a partner on Covering Climate Now, a collaboration headed by CJR and The Nation that aims to make climate coverage more visible in local, national, and international media.)
The study has some methodological limitations: its authors aren’t entirely disinterested, and measuring viewer responses to specific examples of coverage is very hard to do. Still, its results suggest that including climate change in the TV weather report may increase the scientific literacy of viewers. The authors found that in markets where the Climate Matters program has been active, people were more likely to strongly recognize that climate change is real, manmade, and a threat to humans—facts that Climate Matters uses to structure broadcasts—and were also more likely to perceive “proximate” climate harms to their families and communities. (The study did not find enough evidence to support a second hypothesis: that these effects are stronger among viewers who pay the most attention to TV weather forecasts.)
It’s increasingly clear that news consumers want more and better climate coverage. A third recent study, the Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report, provided evidence of that, and of how people in multiple countries get their climate news. According to Simge Andı, a researcher at the Reuters Institute, more than two thirds of respondents to the institute’s international media-consumption survey said they think that climate change is a very or extremely serious story—a figure that rose in countries, such as Chile and South Africa, that have recently experienced severe drought. (In 2018, I reported for CJR from Cape Town on water coverage in South Africa.) Across all markets and age groups, a plurality of respondents said they paid most attention to climate news on TV, though younger consumers also rely on social media. Overall, just under half of respondents said that the media does a good job of accurately covering climate. Nineteen percent of respondents said we do a poor job.
The three reports mentioned here differ greatly in methodology, limitations, and scope. Collectively, however, they seem to offer the news media a pretty clear lesson: our audiences generally care about the climate story, and many of them think we could do better in covering it. To that end, we need to dispense once and for all with false equivalence and instead put climate science front and center—particularly in settings, such as the TV weather report, that are trusted, widely-consumed, and community-rooted. Among other initiatives, CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project is working to strengthen science-led climate coverage across the world’s media. If you want to get involved, you can find out more here. It’s not too late.
Below, more on climate coverage:
- More studies: For Grist, Kate Yoder reflects on two other recent studies exploring why many Americans still reject the facts on climate change. “The takeaway: Evidence alone isn’t enough,” Yoder writes. “The underlying reason people dismiss climate science, it turns out, has more to do with political identity than logic.” Elsewhere, Caroline Porter writes, in a recent report for the Center for Cooperative Media, that climate-journalism collaborations, including Covering Climate Now, are increasingly popular, and can “reduce the noise around issues of bias and mistrust” in climate reporting.
- The Flood Watcher: Writing for CJR last year, Lucy Schiller profiled Eric Sorensen, a meteorologist at WQAD News 8 in Davenport, Iowa, who has incorporated the local effects of climate change into his work. Climate Matters has supported Sorensen’s work, yet he emphasized “how much work meteorologists must still do on their own, to educate themselves, to find novel ways of presenting on the climate crisis, and to convince station managers that environmental coverage matters,” Schiller writes.
- Talking shop: Covering Climate Now has been hosting a series of “Talking Shop” webinars focused on various aspects of the climate story. Tomorrow at noon Eastern, we’re bringing together Worland, from Time; Al Ortiz, from CBS; Savannah Sellers, from NBC; Jane Spencer, from The Guardian; and Bill Weir, from CNN, to discuss climate coverage and the election. Attendance is open to journalists only, but you don’t have to be affiliated with Covering Climate Now to join. You can RSVP here.
- Next steps: From September 21 to 28, Covering Climate Now will coordinate a week of increased climate coverage among its partner outlets, the third time it will have done so. To kick off the week, CCN partners including The Guardian, VICE Media Group, NBC News, and NowThis will invite first-time voters and other young people to collaborate with editors on special projects, including videos, podcasts, and social media content. You can find out more here.
Other notable stories:
- Today, big tech’s most powerful executives—Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook; Jeff Bezos, of Amazon; Tim Cook, of Apple; and Sundar Pichai, of Google’s parent company, Alphabet—will collectively address antitrust issues (by videolink) before a Congressional subcommittee. The hearing will be unprecedented, not least because Bezos has never testified before Congress before. In a column last week, Kara Swisher, of the New York Times, argued that “it’s critical that lawmakers block out all the noise that has grown around the industry and aim at only discussing the repercussions of unfettered power.” As past hearings have shown, many lawmakers specialize more in noise than in tech.
- For CJR, Emily Bell assesses the dilemma that another fast-growing social platform, the Chinese-owned video app TikTok, poses to newsrooms. “Although more heinous data breaches have occurred recently at Twitter, and the consensus is that Facebook is at least as leaky with personal data, TikTok’s status as a Chinese-owned company puts use of the app—and attendant risks and ethical concerns—in a different category,” Bell writes.
- Eighteen of the journalists who quit Deadspin last year in protest of meddling by the site’s private-equity owners are founding Defector Media, a new venture that will cover sports and whatever else takes its writers’ fancy. Defector has an ambitious business model: it will rely on subscriptions, be staff-owned, and enable employees to vote out the editor in chief so long as they have a two-thirds majority. “If you’re going to take a moonshot, you may as well do it exactly the way you want to,” Kelsey McKinney, a staffer, said. The Times has more.
- Recently, the Washington Post pledged to appoint a managing editor for diversity and inclusion following a reckoning about representation, both at the Post and industry-wide. Yesterday, the paper named Krissah Thompson—a 19-year veteran of the Post, who currently serves as an editor in its Style section—to the position, In other job news, NPR appointed Nikki Jones as vice president of change management and transformation.
- Last week, a judge barred federal agents in Portland, Oregon, from targeting journalists and legal observers at protests. Yesterday, a group of journalists and observers claimed in court that since the order was handed down, agents have shot at them, maced them, and forcibly moved them on. Among other measures, their lawyers want the judge to hold two federal agencies in contempt of court. BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman has more.
- For CJR, Bill Grueskin writes in defense of the softball interview. Hard questions can be essential, he writes, and there’s a difference between softballs and pure sycophancy; still, “occasionally, a hard question puts the president—or someone of his ego—on the defensive, while the gentle one prods him to be more candid than he intended.”
- In June, the group Data for Progress surveyed voters on various public-funding models for news. While respondents narrowly backed handing federal relief funds to local outlets and increasing funding for public media, they expressed stronger, bipartisan support for “information districts”—a levy-based model directly accountable to the community. Simon Galperin previously wrote about community information districts for CJR.
- Maya Wiley, a commentator on MSNBC and NBC, is quitting that gig as she considers a bid to be mayor of New York. Wiley—a professor, civil-rights lawyer, and former head of the city’s police oversight board—would likely face a crowded Democratic primary ahead of the mayoral election next year. Emma G. Fitzsimmons has more for the Times.
- And Tuesday was a banner day for inadvertent Kamala Harris news. Politico accidentally published placeholder copy naming her as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick. And Biden flashed private notes about Harris (“Do not hold grudges”) at the AP photographer Andy Harnick. Biden also confirmed that he will pick a running mate (for real) next week.