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The coronavirus pandemic has caused the loss of life, jobs and homes. According to a new study, it also hit U.S. newspapers particularly hard. On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released a report on “the financial state of the news media in the second quarter of 2020.” The report looks at newspapers, cable and broadcast […]
This article was originally published on April 6, 2020, and has been frequently updated since. It was last updated on Oct. 29. It’s getting hard to keep track of the bad news about the news right now. But we have to. Here’s our attempt to collect the layoffs, furloughs, and closures caused by the coronavirus’ […]
The post Here are the newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures caused by the coronavirus appeared first on Poynter.
Don’t be surprised if your social media feeds and your messaging apps become filled with conspiracy theories until Nov. 3, the U.S. Election Day. For a group of highly respected fact-checkers this is totally predictable. “Everything indicates that (disinformers) will insist on posting about Hunter Biden’s emails and Joe Biden’s possible relationships with pedophiles’ networks. […]
The post Fact-checkers head to the War Rooms to battle last minute invasion of conspiracy theories appeared first on Poynter.
A few years ago, the food editor got out of the newsroom and into the fields. Lee Svitak Dean, food editor at The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, spent the morning with Phua and Blia Thao at their 13-acre farm in Spring Valley, Wisconsin. As they chopped rhubarb, they talked about their lives. Phua stoops over a […]
The post After 40 years writing about food, this editor retires next week appeared first on Poynter.
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.
Remember that New York Times op-ed in 2018 titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”? The one written by an anonymous source inside the Trump White House? The one that the Times referred to as from a “senior official inside the Trump administration?” The one that called into question President Donald […]
The post The anonymous author of The New York Times’ op-ed who criticized Trump reveals himself appeared first on Poynter.
Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here. Planting the seeds of election doubt Humans make mistakes, and this year’s election – run by humans – will bring plenty of them. Poll workers are managing the vote during a pandemic. […]
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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. Stories are emerging about how thousands of people who thought they were protected from being evicted from […]
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If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that science and politics can be a dangerous brew. The national press jumped on an Oct. 27 White House press release that, by some lights, claimed victory over the coronavirus. The release, under the banner of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced a report […]
The post The press skewered the White House for saying the pandemic is over. Did it actually say that? appeared first on Poynter.
Press groups call university president’s actions toward a student journalist ‘wildly unconstitutional’
A university president this month issued a scathing “directive” at a student editor that forbade him from requesting public records, accused him of “attacking” university officials and staffers in the course of his reporting, and stated that the editor had “discredited (himself) and this university.” President Ronald Graham issued an Oct. 16 memo — written on […]
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This year’s election might feel like the weirdest ever, but there’s plenty of precedent. I have a quirky election story to share with you. In 2015, I was a reporter for the Bradenton Herald. My beats were law enforcement and Anna Maria Island, a 7-mile island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The island, made up of […]
The post Electing the dead, drawing cards for a mayorship and other weird election stories appeared first on Poynter.
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.”
The Journalism Creators Program at CUNY teaches participants to launch their own news products, from wherever they are
Google releases new tools for journalists — and shares insider insight on what’s trending on the search platform
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.