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In late November, as the Gilets Jaunes—or Yellow Vests—protest movement took hold in France, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre wrote for CJR that participants were harassing, and even assaulting, journalists. Since then, the protests have become a weekly occurrence. So, too, have threats against reporters. “The harassment and violence have got worse,” Eyre told me this morning. “I went to the Saturday protests in Paris to shoot photos and see how big it would get. This was the first time that I really felt nervous with my camera… I saw people interfering with broadcasts, shouting at media teams, and getting in their faces. For much of it, I had my camera in my coat.”
This past weekend, a group of Yellow Vests in the northern city of Rouen set upon two journalists working for LCI, a French TV news broadcaster; they were spared by two bodyguards, one of whom ended up in hospital with a broken nose. Protesters aggressed another LCI team in Paris. In Toulon, two Agence France-Presse reporters were chased by about 10 people, while in nearby Marseille, photographers were hassled and blocked from taking pictures. In Toulouse, a group of protesters trapped a 31-year-old local journalist in her car and threatened her with rape. “They wanted me to open my window. I told them it wasn’t possible, that I had to go and pick up my son,” she recalled. “A man threatened me that I had two seconds to get out.” Organized groups have hampered newspapers’ core operations, too: overnight on Friday, for example, about 30 Yellow Vests blocked regional newspaper La Voix du Nord’s distribution depot and threatened to burn a truck, stopping 20,000 copies of the paper from being delivered. On Sunday, trash cans were set on fire outside the same paper’s offices. While no motive was immediately established, its director doesn’t think it was an accident.
VIDÉO @paris_normandie. Une équipe de journalistes de la chaîne @LCI ciblée par des manifestants à #Rouen. Les deux journalistes étaient accompagnés de deux agents de sécurité, dont l'un a dû être transporté à l'hôpital.
Suivez notre direct sur les ➡ https://t.co/VeQGgFWrvs pic.twitter.com/VmU9bpLOdI
— paris_normandie (@paris_normandie) January 12, 2019
Hatred of the news media among Yellow Vests derives from a poisonous cocktail of old and new grievances: as the sociologist Jean-Marie Charon told Le Monde, French radicals’ longstanding distrust of the press has been exacerbated of late by perceived negative coverage and anti-corporate rhetoric aimed at the big media companies. Public trust in journalists is critically low. And the media has lacked consistent support from politicians, who, as in the US and elsewhere, have indulged anti-press attacks more frequently in recent years. On Saturday, Noëlle Lenoir, a former government minister and (ironically) president of Radio France’s ethics committee, tweeted that the LCI journalists in Rouen bore responsibility for being attacked.
Yellow Vests’ attacks on journalists are complicated by the fact that it’s unclear who, broadly speaking, might reasonably be held accountable for them, or call for them to stop. The Yellow Vests movement is highly diffuse: while some activists have effectively become spokespeople, it lacks leadership and a coherent ideological agenda. An unpopular hike in diesel tax sparked the protests—neon yellow vests only became a symbol because French motorists are obliged to keep them in their cars—but that policy has long since been scrapped, and still tensions continue. Copycat movements have started, albeit on a much smaller scale, in other European countries, including the UK. But again, beyond a general sense of anti-establishment rage, it’s not easy to define what links different “Yellow Vests” movements.
For now, politicians and well-intentioned activists—via public platforms and out on the streets—should speak out in support of the press, and look out for the journalists who, by doing their jobs, are putting themselves in harm’s way. And media-watchers in the US should pay attention. In France, the fear of routine physical violence against reporters has become real.
Below, more on the Yellow Vests:
- “We want your skin”: In November, Goillandeau and Eyre recounted shocking early examples of attacks on reporters. In Toulouse, for example, “dozens of Yellow Vests started yelling, ‘We want your skin,’ and ‘You’re less than shit,’ then calling the journalists ‘collaborators,’ a reference to the support the Vichy government gave to the Nazis during World War II.”
- In the ring: While the Yellow Vests movement lacks a coherent structure, some activists have gained a wide following on social media or personal press attention. The Financial Times’s Domitille Alain and Victor Mallet profile eight important figures, including Christophe Dettinger, a former French boxing champion who was filmed punching police officers in Paris last month.
- Talking it out: On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron, who the Yellow Vests want to resign, announced a three-month “national debate” he hopes will quell the protests. While he promised to listen, however, he said his economic-reform agenda would continue.
- Empty vests: “Yellow Vests” has become fraught shorthand for reporters; while the symbol has become ubiquitous in France, it’s increasingly meaningless in ideological terms. In the UK, meanwhile, both far-left and far-right protesters have appropriated it. The Guardian’s Ben Quinn and Jon Henley track the fight for ideological ownership.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday morning, I wrote about vulture-capital-backed Digital First Media’s bid to buy Gannett. After I hit send, Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor came out with this comprehensive piece, situating the bid in a context of industry-wide consolidation plays and Gannett’s recent decline. “Gannett, like it or not, is in play,” he writes. “Even two years ago, that statement might have been dropped jaws—Gannett was clear it wanted to be the consolidator, not the consolidatee. But no longer: In an industry of unending downturn… all bets on the conventional wisdom of newspaper ownership are off.”
- Following a top-level rejig at NBCUniversal, Mark Lazarus will assume responsibility for NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC—raising questions over the future of Andy Lack, who chairs the former two news divisions, and who has recently come under fire for NBC’s gamble on Megyn Kelly, failure to gamble on Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein reporting, and the #MeToo scandal around star host Matt Lauer. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke backed Lack yesterday.
- Stephen Colbert’s CBS Late Show is proving a popular stop for Democrats with presidential aspirations, CNN’s Brian Stelter notes: over the past month, Colbert has interviewed Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, and Kamala Harris, with Kirsten Gillibrand slated to appear tonight. Across the aisle, John Kasich, the never-Trump Republican and outgoing Ohio governor, is looking for a contributor gig at CNN or MSNBC (he’s ruled out going back to Fox) ahead of his own possible 2020 movement, CNBC’s Brian Schwartz reports.
- In CJR, Ryan Thornburg, who teaches journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, calls on his department’s faculty to make an institutional statement against a Confederate monument that stands on campus. “In my reporting classes, I teach my students what I was taught—that good journalists learn how to set themselves aside and take a posture of professional detachment,” Thornburg writes. “I still believe all those things. But I’ve let my pursuit of impartiality shackle a voice that journalism needs right now—one that says our field isn’t so callous that it can’t defend basic human freedoms.”
- The Times’s Jim Rutenberg reckons Trump’s tweets praising the National Enquirer’s recent Jeff Bezos expose were a “Valentine” to David Pecker—the chair of the tabloid’s owner and erstwhile Trump pal who is now cooperating with New York prosecutors investigating the president. Meanwhile, at Bezos’s Washington Post, journalists are still weighing how to handle the Enquirer’s reporting on their owner’s love life, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reports. “Tabloid-style extramarital affairs aren’t typically in their wheelhouse,” Pompeo writes. “At the same time, they don’t want to appear to be ignoring the story.”
- Vox’s German Lopez takes issue with former Times reporter Alex Berenson’s new book on the potential danger of pot, which has received ample attention lately, including from Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. “While a compelling read written by an experienced journalist, [the book] is essentially an exercise in cherry-picking data and presenting correlation as causation,” Lopez writes. “Observations and anecdotes, not rigorous scientific analysis, are at the core of the book’s claim that legal marijuana will cause—and, in fact, is causing—a huge rise in psychosis and violence in America.”
- And the punk zine Maximum Rocknroll is going out of print. It will live on online and through its weekly radio show, Pitchfork’s Evan Minsker reports.
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Last night, The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported that MNG Enterprises Inc. is planning a bid for Gannett, the publishing powerhouse that owns USA Today as well as important local papers such as the Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press, and Iowa’s Des Moines Register. The scoop might normally have passed under the radar as standard-issue jockeying—except MNG Enterprises is better known as Digital First Media, the prolific private-equity-backed publisher that has become an industry byword for cost-cutting and job-slashing.
The largest shareholder of Digital First Media, which owns about 200 publications nationwide, is Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund that specializes in investing in troubled companies. The names Digital First and Alden made headlines last April after flagship paper The Denver Post ran an editorial excoriating them as “vultures” alongside a striking all-staff photo, from 2013, with tens of since-laid-off employees blacked out. A few weeks later, the editor of a neighboring Digital First title, Boulder’s Daily Camera, was fired over a similar rebuke; then, in early May, the Post’s editorial page editor himself resigned, accusing Digital First executives of further attempts at censorship (CJR published a critical editorial he said was spiked). As tensions rose, staffers from Digital First papers as far away as California traveled to protest outside Alden’s New York offices. Buyout campaigns were mooted, then fizzled.
Given this raw context, yesterday’s Journal report elicited immediate concern among media reporters and local-news watchers, many of whom noted that Gannett titles nationwide are in a sad enough state without the prospect of further cuts. Keach Hagey, Lombardo’s colleague at the Journal, tweeted: “After watching what Gannett has done to my hometown paper—cutting most of the staff, outsourcing printing so far away local sports scores can’t appear the next day—I’m fascinated to learn what fat Digital First thinks is left.” Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton added that “Digital First is the worst owner of newspapers in America and they will do their best to draw blood from even Gannett’s already desiccated stone.” And the LA Times’s Matt Pearce warned Gannett that, if Digital First is knocking on its door, it should “lock the deadbolt.”
It’s too early to say how Digital First’s courtship will play out. It has raised the idea in the past and been rebuffed, according to Lombardo, who adds that “it isn’t clear whether Gannett will be receptive now.” Although Robert Dickey, Gannett’s CEO, emailed staffers last night to tell them that a new proposal had yet to be communicated, Digital First confirmed its intentions this morning. Dickey is set to retire in May, with Gannett yet to name a replacement. Lombardo reports that Digital First, which already holds a 7.5 percent stake in Gannett, wants to broker a strategy review before any leadership change is finalized, and hasn’t ruled out pushing changes to Gannett’s board if it isn’t successful. While Gannett stock has rebounded of late, it’s trended down over several years. Digital First, which is relatively profitable, is pressing the case that a sale is Gannett’s best bet.
Even if Digital First’s latest power play comes to nothing, it’s an important reminder of the power hedge-fund owners wield over local news. And if it does presage a successful bid, journalists—and readers—nationwide should brace for more big papers to be stripped for parts.
Below, more on the dire climate for local news:
- A unified front: CJR covered last year’s tensions at Digital First titles in detail. Corey Hutchins tracked sister papers’ different responses to The Denver Post’s editorial stand, and interviewed Julie Reynolds, a freelance reporter who made Alden the focus of her work. Meg Dalton, meanwhile, went downtown to Alden HQ to cover the protests there.
- Milking profits: Last May, Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor tallied the profits Alden has made by cutting newspapers to the bone. In addition to The Denver Post and other titles, Digital First’s Southern California and Bay Area news groups have seen eye-watering staff reductions—with The Mercury News, for example, reduced to around a tenth of its peak size.
- More Bay layoffs: On Friday, the East Bay Express, an alt-weekly in California (which is not owned by Digital First), laid off almost its entire editorial staff, The Mercury News’s David DeBolt writes. The Express won a Polk award in 2016 after exposing a police sex scandal in Oakland, but is now shifting to a freelancer-driven model as print revenue declines. A court’s ruling that the paper illegally denied overtime to a former staffer has exacerbated its financial problems.
- The King of local news: After Maine’s Portland Press Herald announced it was scrapping its Sunday review of local books, local author Stephen King took to Twitter to voice his disapproval. Spying an opportunity, the paper replied that if 100 of King’s followers bought a digital subscription, it would reinstate the book reviews. The gambit worked: by Sunday, the Press Herald had 200 new subscribers.
Other notable stories:
- It was a weekend of huge scoops on the Trump–Russia beat. On Friday, The New York Times reported that the FBI investigated whether Trump was a Russian asset after he fired the bureau’s former director, James Comey, in 2017. Then, on Saturday, The Washington Post revealed that Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin from senior officials. The stories were the latest salvos in a news cycle that defies belief so frequently that it can be hard to keep up. Handily, The Atlantic is out with a detailed recap of its top 50 “unthinkable” moments of Trump’s presidency.
- CBS News was criticized over the weekend for failing to include a single black journalist in a 12-strong 2020 election reporting team. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the network to “try again,” while Jelani Cobb, the New Yorker staff writer who guest edited CJR’s latest print issue on race and journalism, tweeted: “So… what you’re saying is that in a campaign in which voter suppression and racial attitudes are expected to play a huge role you will have zero black journalists covering it?” CBS responded that the group is only an “initial wave.”
- Following reports of “false flag” social media campaigns run by progressive activists during the 2017 Alabama Senate special election, Doug Jones, the Democrat who narrowly won that race, called on the Federal Election Commission to investigate. Late last week, On the Media’s Bob Garfield spoke with one of the activists involved in the effort, who bluntly defended his actions. And the Times’s Jim Rutenberg writes that “in addition to giving Russia new ammunition in its defense against election-meddling allegations, the progressives’ political caper in Alabama sent a chilling message to the rest of us: Reality-warping attacks are now coming from inside the house.”
- Palestinian citizens of Israel are under-represented in the country’s media and struggling to tell their stories as a result, Miriam Berger reports for CJR. “The struggle to create a sustainable and independent Palestinian press inside Israel reflects many of the pressures facing these communities,” Berger writes. “Journalists who work in the local Arabic newspapers and websites complained of low pay, poor writing and editing standards, and basically no way to advance.”
- For CNN, Oren Liebermann explains how a malware attack on an associate’s phone may have helped state killers track the Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi last October. On Saturday, meanwhile, Rahaf al-Qunun, the Saudi teenager who garnered international attention when she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room to avoid being rendered to her family, arrived in Canada, where she has been granted asylum.
- In the UK, The Guardian’s Saturday edition will now be sold in a biodegradable wrapper made of potato starch after readers told the paper to cut down on plastic waste.
- And also in the UK, the Daily Star tabloid pulled an “interview” with the actor and erstwhile-presidential-rumor-generator Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson after he said it was fabricated, BuzzFeed’s Marcus Jones and Julia Reinstein report. The Star quoted The Rock as “smacking down” on “Generation Snowflake.”
Update: This post has been updated to reflect the breaking news that Digital First Media confirmed its proposal to acquire Gannett.
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When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez exploded onto the scene last June with a New York primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley, chair of the House Democratic caucus, many in the media wondered why they’d failed to see her coming. While left-leaning outlets such as The Intercept, Splinter, and The Young Turks had paid attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s longshot bid, more mainstream publications had overlooked both her campaign and the radically progressive platform it touted. “Abolish ICE” and “Medicare for all” quickly entered the lexicon of the political press.
Seven months later, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez fills column inches as a disrupter in Washington. In addition to her agenda, plenty of ink has spilled on her social media game: prominent media and tech writers have lined up recently to hail it as a mini-revolution in political communication. Where Trump, is “online,” Ocasio-Cortez is “Extremely Online,” Kara Swisher writes in her New York Times column. Ocasio-Cortez’s #relatable video content humanizes her, Swisher adds, whereas Trump’s disembodied tweets make him look “more and more like a giant cartoon bobblehead.”
The right-wing mediasphere, which had become accustomed to its own viral dominance, has developed an obsession with Ocasio-Cortez. Other top targets, like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, have rarely dignified its ire with a response, yet Ocasio-Cortez, backed by her many supporters on social media, has proved adept at drowning out the noise with blaring counter-noise. When critics tag a “scandal” to her, she quickly turns it around—and scores points with her fans in the process.
When, in November, a Washington Examiner reporter shared a picture of Ocasio-Cortez dressed in normal clothes with the caption “that don’t look like a girl who struggles,” he was, as Vice put it, “ratio’d into oblivion” on Twitter—reigniting a debate on salaries for incoming lawmakers. Last week, after an “Anonymous Q” Twitter account shared a video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing in college, she filmed and tweeted an update; this time to the song “War (What Is It Good For).” This week, the Daily Caller found itself on the end of another Ocasio-Cortez clapback after sharing a hoax “nude selfie” of her in the bath that had already been comprehensively debunked. Ocasio-Cortez used this episode to draw attention to the heightened scrutiny women face in leadership positions. “No wonder they defended [Brett] Kavanaugh so fiercely,” she wrote.
Responses to these conflagrations represent only a small portion of Ocasio-Cortez’s online presence: she’s on social media day-in, day-out, sharing everything from serious policy points to cooking tips, using the informality of the latter to boost the appeal of the former. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel (who yesterday announced he is headed to the Times opinion desk) writes, all these posts are “agenda-setting.” Ocasio-Cortez has not limited herself to social forums: last weekend, she used a high-profile 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper to suggest tax rates as high as 70 percent to fund a “Green New Deal”; on Tuesday, soon after Trump’s Oval Office address to the nation, Ocasio-Cortez went on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, drawing attention to the separation of families at the border. Taken together, it all begins to seem like one big, personalized, multimedia feedback loop.
That’s quite a lot for a Congresswoman just now wrapping up her first week. Despite being a newbie in Congress, she’s been effective in speaking for her colleagues. Last weekend, she told Cooper that she does not see herself as a “flamethrower” but as a “consensus builder.” Nonetheless, both her policy platform and communication style show she’s intent on burning the status quo. Ocasio-Cortez intends to dominate the conversation, and not let it dominate her.
Below, more on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
- A disrupter: Wired’s Antonio García Martínez writes that “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a social media marketing genius, and very likely a harbinger of a new American political reality … The same way florid, hours-long public oratory (echoed by the newfangled telegraph and newspapers) was the route to power for Lincoln in 1860, the preeningly candid self-display of streaming social media will be the route to power in 2020 and beyond.”
- On fact-checking: When Cooper fact-checked an old Ocasio-Cortez tweet on Medicare for all, she drew criticism for responding “I think there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” Writing for New York’s Intelligencer, Eric Levitz argues that she has a point. “Which truths and falsehoods the mainstream press chooses to spotlight—and which it leaves unscrutinized—does reflect the ideological biases of the “objective” press,” he writes. “While Medicare for All’s proponents are constantly confronted with the fiscal implications of their preferred policy, opponents of dramatically expanding the public sector’s role in health care are rarely confronted with the humanitarian implications of leaving nearly 30 million Americans uninsured.”
- The status quo: Ocasio-Cortez created a new Instagram account yesterday, blaming “House rules” for having to mothball her old one. “The Members’ Congressional Handbook doesn’t explicitly say that lawmakers are required to make new accounts, but in most cases it’s easier to separate their government resources and personal ones in order to avoid ethics violations,” The Verge’s Makena Kelly explains.
- Pulling teeth: Braving a new #relatable frontier yesterday, Beto O’Rourke broadcast his dental appointment in an Instagram Story. Some people wish he hadn’t. “A sudden rush of extremely online candidates could leave some politicians oversharing,” The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill writes. “When everyone is uploading folksy videos from their kitchens, it takes an otherwise questionable Teeth Video to cut through the noise.”
Other notable stories:
- Trump went to the border yesterday to reinforce his demand for a wall and tape an “interview” with Sean Hannity—showing up despite telling network anchors earlier this week that he thought the visit would be pointless. (Trump countered that the previous remarks were “OFF THE RECORD.”) Hannity spent the visit with White House staffers, not the press corps; he was spotted huddling with his old pal Bill Shine, a former Fox executive who is now Trump’s communications director. Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman of the Times report that Trump may be getting sick of Shine: “Shine, according to his critics, has shown little understanding of the conservative media beyond the cable news ecosystem and his former network—the one place where the president does not need much assistance, and where Shine has few remaining admirers.”
- The National Enquirer claimed credit for Jeff Bezos going public with his divorce, boasting that it tracked him “across five states and 40,000 miles” to reveal him “whisking his mistress off to exotic destinations on his $65 million private jet.” The Enquirer’s history with Trump, and Trump’s hatred of Bezos, founder of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, sparked rumors of something sinister, though CNN’s Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy are skeptical: the Trump-Enquirer relationship “visibly ended in April when the FBI raided [Michael] Cohen’s office and subpoenaed records from the Enquirer.” We might know more about Cohen and the Enquirer’s work to bury bad stories about Trump on February 7, when Cohen will testify to Congress.
- When three Russian journalists turned up in the Central African Republic to investigate Russian private military contractors’ work there, they were tracked closely, then killed in “a well-planned ambush involving a senior police officer with shadowy Russian connections,” according to new evidence seen by CNN’s Tim Lister and Sebastian Shukla.
- Q13, a Fox affiliate in Washington state, fired a staffer after the station aired an apparently doctored video of Trump’s Oval Office address on Tuesday night. The video made Trump look bright orange and showed him “sticking his tongue out languidly between sentences,” Christine Clarridge and Ryan Blethen of The Seattle Times report.
- Agenda, a corporate news service owned by The Financial Times, deleted quotes from a supposed interview with Les Moonves, the disgraced former CEO of CBS, after Moonves strongly denied speaking to its reporters, The Wrap’s Jon Levine reports. Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr reports that Jeff Flake, who just finished his term as a Republican US senator for Arizona, is in talks with CBS about a role at the network, which could be “as an on-air contributor—or as something more.”
- And for CJR, I checked in with a new magazine in France that looks at big challenges facing the world through the prism of … toilets.