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The post Fact-check: Did KKK members carry a banner endorsing Trump? appeared first on Poynter.
This story was last updated on September 25. In many places, it started with a cut in print days. Furloughs. Layoffs. Just to get through the crisis, newsroom leaders told readers. In some places, none of it was enough. Now, small newsrooms around the country, often more than 100 years old, often the only news […]
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“‘Warp speed’ was an unfortunate term”: With Covid-19, vaccine messaging faces an unprecedented test
Following successful experiments, Twitter will prompt all users to read the articles they’re about to retweet
On Wednesday, Black Lives Matter protesters in Louisville and around the world waited with bated breath for an announcement from Daniel Cameron, Kentucky’s attorney general: a charging decision, or lack thereof, in the case of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician who was killed by police at her home. Cameron called Taylor’s killing a “tragedy,” then revealed that none of the officers involved would face criminal charges for it. A grand jury in Taylor’s case did indict one of the officers, Brett Hankison, on three charges of “wanton endangerment”—related not to Taylor, but to Hankison’s spraying bullets into a neighboring apartment. (None of the occupants of that apartment were harmed; a federal investigation into Taylor’s killing has yet to be concluded.) “In our system, criminal justice isn’t the quest for revenge,” Cameron said. “It’s the quest for truth, evidence, and facts.”
On the streets of Louisville and other cities, where protesters have massed every day for months to demand justice for Taylor, the announcement triggered a fresh outpouring of shock, sorrow, and anger. Initial coverage on MSNBC, in particular, channeled similar emotions—Joy Reid called the decision a “Black Lives Don’t Matter ruling”—and chyrons and headlines accurately communicated, sometimes in pained terms, that no officers had been charged. The coverage wasn’t uniform, though. In push notifications and breaking-news tweets, numerous major news outlets linked the indictment to Taylor’s killing without mentioning the crucial detail about her neighbors’ apartment; at least one tweet (by Axios) inaccurately stated that the grand jury indicted the officer who killed Taylor. (According to a ballistics analysis, it was a different cop, Myles Cosgrove, who fired the fatal shot.)
New from CJR: Deconstructing the News Desert
Subsequent coverage was mostly about protesters’ reaction and Taylor’s life, but many cable hosts and news reports dwelled in the weeds of what Cameron said had happened in Taylor’s apartment the night that she was killed. I wish they hadn’t. We don’t know exactly what evidence Cameron gave the grand jury; publicly, key claims officials have provided about Taylor’s killing remain in dispute. Cameron said that a civilian witness heard officers identify themselves before they raided her apartment—but a lawyer for Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s partner, claims that the witness initially told police that he didn’t hear any identification, an account that matches those of many other witnesses in Taylor’s building. There are big question marks, too, over the legal basis for the warrant that the officers used to justify entering Taylor’s apartment. Some coverage—on CNN, for example—raised queries; other coverage glossed over them. But there’s a bigger problem here: focusing on the legalese instead of the human tragedy.
Since Cameron’s announcement, reporting has also highlighted “unrest”—in particular, the shooting, on Wednesday night, of two Louisville police officers; the news came in a flurry of push alerts. (Both officers survived and are recovering.) Even before any protests got going—before Cameron’s announcement, in fact—coverage fed ominous warnings: downtown Louisville was being boarded up; the mayor had declared a “state of emergency”; a curfew would be enforced. These were all statements of fact—but they also adopted the narrative framing devices of law enforcement. Militaristic police tactics have become so commonplace in America that, too often, we fail to note how inappropriate they are. As the hours went on, I saw much less reporting—and received no push alerts—about the incidents of police aggression: officers in Louisville threatening to deploy tear gas; cops in Minneapolis and Atlanta actually deploying tear gas; an officer in Seattle rolling his bike over the head of a protester lying on the ground. In Denver, Buffalo, and, last night, LA, members of the public drove their vehicles into the crowds.
Yesterday, business owners in Louisville told the local Courier-Journal that, although they had anticipated property damage and violence on Wednesday night, they hadn’t actually seen much. (“Don’t believe what the news says,” a restaurant worker told the Courier-Journal. “It wasn’t bad at all.”) That is often true of protests, and yet, as Fabiola Cineas has reported for Vox, all summer long, coverage has tended to overemphasize isolated incidents of violence and vandalism while peaceful demonstrations have struggled to receive press attention. Which, of course, plays right into the hands of President Trump, who believes that conjuring the impression of devastation in cities run by Democrats will help his chances for reelection.
On Wednesday, as news of the Cameron announcement started to circulate, Brian Karem, a White House correspondent for Playboy, asked Trump whether—in light of the “rioting in Louisville” and elsewhere—he’d commit “to making sure that there is a peaceful transferral of power after the election.” Trump refused to do so; yesterday, he refused again. The idea that Trump might foment violence for political gain is, of course, not hypothetical—he’s already done it. (Lest we forget a recent example: in response to protests in Portland, Oregon, federal agents fired weapons at protesters.) Media coverage needs to train its focus on the actors who have the greatest institutional power to inflict violence, be they Trump or a local police department. Interrogating power imbalances is at the heart of our job, and essential to seeking justice for Breonna Taylor.
Below, more on Breonna Taylor, the protests, and Trump:
- The truth: Following Cameron’s announcement, right-wing memes promising “the truth” about Taylor’s killing went viral on Facebook; they did not offer the truth, but rather smears about Taylor’s background and press coverage of her death. Kevin Roose, of the New York Times, has more. On Fox News, Laura Ingraham attacked the mainstream media for spreading the “lie” that “America is a systemically racist country.” Tucker Carlson made a similar point, adding that the indictment in the Taylor case is an example of “how our system is supposed to work.”
- Journalists arrested: On Wednesday, reporters in Louisville faced threats from local police. Ryan Van Velzer, a reporter with WFPL News, for instance, tweeted that, when he stepped away from covering the protest, officers told him they would impound his car if he returned. Later, police arrested Shelby Talcott and Jorge Ventura, who were covering the protests for the Daily Caller, a right-wing news site. Talcott wasn’t released until 5pm yesterday.
- Journalists attacked: At a briefing yesterday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, suggested that Brianna Keilar, an anchor on CNN, was responsible for the two officers in Louisville being shot. In response, Keilar tweeted at McEnany: “The Breonna you should be talking about today is not me.” Later, at a rally in Florida, Trump referenced the time that Ali Velshi, of MSNBC, was struck by a rubber bullet while covering a protest in Minneapolis, in May—an incident that Trump has turned into a reliable campaign punch line. On Tuesday, Trump said that it’s a “beautiful sight” when police assault journalists.
- A big enough story? Yesterday, media critics including Matt Gertz, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, argued that major outlets “buried” Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “Trump is adept at taking advantage of the finite size of the newshole,” Gertz wrote, “flooding the zone with so many reprehensible comments that the press has trouble giving any of them their due.” Peter Baker, of the Times, replied that Trump’s comment came too late to make the next day’s print front page (even though Trump said it a little after 6pm Eastern). This morning, Trump’s comments sit atop the front pages of both the Times and the Washington Post.
Other notable stories:
- Breaking this morning: four people have been stabbed near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, in Paris. Two of the victims are thought to have life-threatening injuries; according to Le Monde, they both work for Premières Lignes, a company that makes investigative documentaries. Two suspects have been arrested; the story is still developing. In 2015, two jihadists murdered eleven staffers in Charlie Hebdo’s offices after the magazine published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad; recently, alleged accomplices of the jihadists went on trial, and Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons, which led to further threats, including from Al Qaeda.
- The Facebook Oversight Board, a group of experts that will have the power to rule on controversial posts, will begin their work next month, in time to hear cases related to the presidential election. The board has been likened to a “Supreme Court” for Facebook—but as CJR’s Mathew Ingram has written, many observers fear that it will prove “an elaborate exercise in window-dressing.” This morning, prominent critics of Facebook, including the journalists Carole Cadwalladr and Maria Ressa, announced that they’re forming an unofficial counterpart to the board, called the “Real Facebook Oversight Board.” NBC’s Olivia Solon has more details.
- Yesterday, a federal judge dismissed a defamation suit that Karen McDougal—a former model whose story of an affair with Trump was killed by the National Enquirer—brought against Tucker Carlson, of Fox News. Carlson accused McDougal of extortion. Fox’s lawyers convinced a judge that since Carlson clearly practices “nonliteral commentary” and “exaggeration” on his show, his remarks were protected by the First Amendment.
- Recently, leaders of the Miami Herald discovered that El Nuevo Herald, its Spanish-language sister paper, had routinely been publishing paid inserts that contained racist and anti-Semitic statements. No editor had reviewed the inserts before they were published. Now, according to Because Miami, Nancy San Martin, the managing editor of El Nuevo Herald, has resigned, and Mindy Marques, who served as executive editor and publisher of both Herald papers, will relinquish her publisher role.
- On Wednesday, bosses at Tribune Publishing—which has imposed sharp cuts on local papers that it owns, including shuttering their physical offices—told employees, in an email, that they’d soon be receiving big bonuses. But the bonuses were fake: bosses were dangling them to test staffers’ susceptibility to phishing scams. A spokesperson later conceded that the exercise was “insensitive.” The Post’s Erik Wemple has more.
- For CJR, Jorge Bello profiles the Red Hook Star-Revue, a free community paper in Brooklyn that aims to reacquaint readers with “the magic of print.” George Fiala, its owner, uses the cash flow from a mailing company that he runs to help fund the paper, which has continued to print despite the coronavirus downturn. “If the Star-Revue still exists,” Bello writes, “it’s only because Fiala wills it into existence every month.”
- The Washington City Paper, a storied alt-weekly in DC, hoped to continue printing on a weekly schedule through the pandemic, but has concluded—with ad sales and events revenue cratering—that it can no longer afford to do so. The paper will now come out monthly, a cut that management is describing as a “temporary” measure to “protect staff and salaries as best we can.” It will continue to publish new stories regularly online.
- Lauren Johnson, a former advertising executive at Esquire, is suing Hearst, the magazine’s owner, on the grounds that Jack Essig, her boss, engaged in gender- and age-based discrimination. Hearst says that it investigated Johnson’s claims and found them to be meritless. Patrick Coffee and Lucia Moses have more for Business Insider.
- And Sir Harold Evans—a giant of British and American journalism who held prominent positions at The Times of London, Reuters, and Random House, among other accomplishments—has died. He was ninety-two. Tina Brown, his wife, wrote that he was her “soulmate” and “the most magical of men.”
This story originally published Sept. 20. It has been updated to include more newsrooms. It was last updated Sept. 25. The Tulsa (Oklahoma) World laid off at least 10 journalists Monday, Poynter has learned. The World is owned by Lee Enterprises, which bought 31 newspapers from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway earlier this year. Journalists laid […]
The post We’re tracking layoffs at Lee Enterprises newspapers appeared first on Poynter.
The biggest media story at the moment is … I ran into a friend from the journalism world on Thursday whom I had not seen since before the coronavirus shut down everything. After our hellos and how-are-yous, we said what all of us say these days. “Strange times, eh?” my friend said. I answered, “Yeah. […]
The post What’s the biggest media story of the moment? It’s getting harder every day to say appeared first on Poynter.
This article was originally published on April 6, 2020, and has been frequently updated since. It was last updated on September 25. 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.
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. When will there be a vaccine for children? As I read the CDC’s new playbook for how […]
The post When can we expect a vaccine for children, an important step in the fight against COVID-19? appeared first on Poynter.
On the morning after the 2016 presidential election, many opinion pollsters and pundits picked at their scrambled eggs with egg on their faces. Somehow, Donald Trump had upset Hillary Clinton, the favored candidate in their polls. Journalists who provided misleading reporting to the public should have been eating humble pie. Before this year’s Nov. 3 […]
The post Reporting on polls? Here’s how to do it responsibly appeared first on Poynter.
When we launched our news product training pilot last February, we knew it would be key for local news organizations’ survival in the long run; product thinking would put them on a path to find new audiences, improve internal processes and monetize news, in time. And then COVID-19 hit. What happened next is what convinced […]
The post As it turns out, product thinking is a great asset in a crisis appeared first on Poynter.
The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, sign up here. Reactions to the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision This isn’t a political statement. These are facts. A young Black woman was asleep in her bed when Louisville police smashed their way into her apartment. They then […]
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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. From the beginning of this column, we have said we would help you with the coverage of […]
The post Understanding the legal language and judicial issues in the Breonna Taylor ruling appeared first on Poynter.
The political drama surrounding TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app, already seemed to be at a fever pitch in recent weeks: as the clock ticked down on an executive order from Donald Trump that gave the company a deadline to sell the app or be banned, a counter order from the Chinese government prevented TikTok from selling its recommendation algorithm, seen as the app’s “secret sauce.” But as improbable as it sounds, the drama has only intensified—and, in the process, has confirmed that the affair is even more of a craven political game than it appeared to be. As part of a deal designed to get Trump to approve an acquisition and stop short of banning the app outright, Oracle and Walmart have partnered to invest in a new entity that will control the app, and the data will be stored on Oracle’s cloud computing service. But it’s not clear that the way TikTok’s ownership is structured will actually meet Trump’s requirements. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been making noise about how the whole process is “extortion,” and sources close to the ruling Communist Party say the deal could be rejected even if the US approves it.
According to recent press statements by both Oracle and Walmart, the two companies will take a combined 20-percent ownership stake in a new entity called TikTok Global, which is then expected to issue a public offering of shares. “Americans will be the majority [owners] and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global,” Oracle’s statement said. TikTok’s current owner ByteDance, however, has said that it plans to continue to own 80 percent of the new entity. That would seem to contradict not just Oracle’s description of the deal, but also Trump’s comments about what he intends to accept. On Monday, he told Fox News that he would not approve a deal between Oracle and the company unless it results in US owners having control over the app. (Trump has also said he expects a $5 billion payment to be made by TikTok’s owners into an educational fund.) Oracle and Walmart “are going to buy it,” he said. “They’re going to have total control over it. They’re going to own the controlling interest. And if we find that they don’t have total control, then we’re not going to approve the deal.”
According to a number of reports on what the proposed acquisition deal actually means, Oracle and Walmart appear to be hoping they can meet the letter of Trump’s demands without honoring their spirit. So while ByteDance might continue to own 80 percent of the global entity, shares in the Chinese company are owned by a number of American venture funds, and that could be interpreted to mean that the US controls TikTok, since those funds would wind up with more than 50 percent of the shares. According to a report by the Washington Post, a person familiar with the deal said the new company would include 36 percent Chinese ownership, including ByteDance’s founder. US investors, including Walmart, Oracle, and American venture capital firms that are investors in ByteDance, would own 53 percent of the new entity, while other non-Chinese international investors would own 11 percent. “There are competing claims [about ownership] because no one is really telling the full story,” Paul Haskell-Dowland, associate dean of computing at Edith Cowan University in Australia, told The Guardian.
As for China, it’s still not clear whether it wants TikTok to do a deal at all, and as its previous ruling on the sale of the algorithm indicates, it has a lot of sway over what the company can or will ultimately do. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, not long after Trump made his comments to Fox News about American control, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, a tabloid published by the Communist Party, said on Twitter that Beijing would likely reject the deal “because the agreement would endanger China’s national security, interests and dignity.” ByteDance has also filed a lawsuit asking the court to issue a preliminary injunction delaying the Trump executive order that will block downloads of the app as of this weekend, and block the app completely as of November 21. In addition to arguing that the ban will cause the company “irreparable harm,” ByteDance is asking for an injunction on many of the same grounds that WeChat, another Chinese-owned app, used in its own lawsuit against a similar Trump executive order. WeChat won an injunction on September 19 from a judge in California, who ruled that the ban would harm free speech.
The bans on TikTok and WeChat came into being because the Trump administration argued that both of the Chinese-owned apps pose security risks to the American people. The president’s executive order says that they constitute a “national emergency,” and that they “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” Is there any factual evidence that this is the case? Not really. All the administration can say is that the apps’ data collection “threatens to allow” China to “track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.” But as some analysts have pointed out, far more detailed troves of information can be acquired quite easily through private data brokerages, and yet none of these companies have faced any crackdowns or restrictions by the American government. All of which makes the machinations over TikTok’s ownership seem a lot more like a political football rather than an ethical stance on potential digital espionage.
Here’s more on TikTok and the government:
- A crock: Media mogul Barry Diller told CNBC on Tuesday the deal in which Oracle and Walmart would take minority stakes in TikTok “is a crock.” Diller, chairman of Expedia and IAC, made his comments in a Squawk Box interview days after Trump agreed to approve the deal with the Chinese-based owner of the viral video-sharing app. “It started obviously simply — to say we want to protect the security of Americans from anything that could happen to them by using TikTok,” said Diller. “It has now morphed into a ludicrous game-match between tossing ownership here, control there. … Its original aims are out the window. It has just come a whole political mishmash.”
- A lesson: In the New York Times, opinion writer John Herrman says TikTok users in the US are running into something that many users of internet platforms in other countries have come to know well: “A flourishing online social space existentially threatened by diplomatic and political fights between states and corporations, with little input from those affected by their decisions.” Chinese citizens are used to broad bans on foreign platforms including Facebook and Google, he says, and then there are the “occasional national shutdowns of Twitter, Facebook or YouTube during periods of political unrest in many countries around the world, including Egypt, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Turkey and others; or the Indian ban on TikTok and other Chinese internet services earlier this year.”
- A mistake: In the MIT Technology Review, tech researcher Graham Walker argues that if the Trump administration was serious about stopping bad actors from abusing personal data from US-based users, “or serious about stopping foreign intelligence agencies from gathering massive datasets describing US society, they would go to the root of the problem: an app economy that collects and monetizes as much data as companies can manage.” The real scandal, Walker says, is not that the Chinese government might exploit personal data, “it’s that doing so is so easy for them and many others, and will remain so even if TikTok and WeChat are banned.”
Other notable stories:
- In an internal memo, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron warned the paper’s reporters and editors not to get carried away when it comes to handling tantalizing political leaks and party propaganda. For leaked or hacked material, he said, “our emphasis should be on making a sound and well-considered decision—not on speed. We should resist the instinct to post a story simply because a competitor has done so.” And on disinformation, Baron said, “if a candidate amplifies a critique of an opponent that is also being promoted by foreign actors or domestic conspiracy theorists, we should make that clear in our stories.”
- Casey Newton, a popular technology writer (who has appeared on CJR’s Galley discussion platform), is leaving The Verge to run his own newsletter hosted by Substack, which also publishes newsletters from journalists including Emily Atkin, Bill Bishop, and Matt Taibbi. Among other things, Newton told Sarah Jeong that Substack has agreed to cover his legal costs, and is also giving him a stipend to cover his health insurance costs. Meanwhile, the journalists behind Discourse, former members of the Gizmodo Media blog Splinter, said they are leaving Substack to run their own site.
- Four former employees of online auction site eBay have said they will admit they took part in an elaborate scheme to intimidate a blogger critical of the company, according to Bloomberg. The four defendants were lower-level employees and don’t include James Baugh, eBay’s former senior director of safety and security, or David Harville, former director of global resiliency. Both men, who have also been charged, deny any wrongdoing in the case, in which a Boston couple who put out a newsletter were sent a series of disturbing items including a bloody pig mask and a funeral wreath.
- Some journalists believe that NPR reporter Nina Totenberg’s long-term friendship with former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg created an obvious conflict of interest, and should either have been forbidden or at least disclosed to readers. “It creates an appearance [of conflict] question,” former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie told the paper. “On the face of it, I’m uncomfortable with it. I’d have to think about removing a reporter from the beat” under similar circumstances. “At the very least, it should be disclosed.”
- Penske Media, the company that publishes Variety and Rolling Stone magazines, said it has formed a partnership with MRC, a media and entertainment company that owns the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, as well as the rights to shows produced by Dick Clark Productions, including the American Music Awards and the Golden Globes. The new venture will be called PMRC, and the partnership had some media writers decrying what they called the “end of an era” and the consolidation of the Hollywood press.
- April Ehrlich, a reporter with Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon, was reportedly among eleven people arrested by police during a sweep of a park where homeless people were camped. Ehrlich had been on the scene since dawn to cover the anticipated police action, according to a report by JPR, and was arrested on charges of interfering with a peace officer, second-degree trespassing, and resisting arrest. She posted bail and was released Tuesday afternoon. Police said in a statement that officers warned her of the park closure, directing her instead to a “media staging area” at the entrance of the park.
- The New York Times announced that Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., chairman of the board of the company that publishes the newspaper, will step down next year after four decades at the helm of the company and be replaced by his son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, who is currently the publisher of the paper, a position he assumed in 2018. The Times has been run by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896, when its patriarch, Adolph S. Ochs, bought the paper in a bankruptcy sale. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was the fifth publisher in its history.
- According to a report by The Daily Beast, the One America News Network, a conservative television broadcaster that is favored by Donald Trump, is selling custom emojis on its YouTube channel that are designed to appeal to fans of QAnon, the conspiracy theory cult that the FBI has called a terrorist organization. “OAN viewers who pay $4.95 a month to become members of the OAN channel on YouTube can use customized QAnon emojis in OAN’s comment sections, in an apparent attempt to win over QAnon believers,” says the Beast report.
ICYMI: Journalism’s Gates keepers
Under a presidency that, perhaps more than any in recent memory, tends to be rendered in starkly moralistic terms, there is perhaps no better case study of the rise-and-fall character arc than Robert Mueller. Where the right always hated Mueller’s probe into Trump, Russia, and the 2016 campaign, liberals once lionized him—sticking his rumpled face on everything from protest placards to prayer candles—and many members of the mainstream press cast him as a redoubt of institutional rectitude in a world gone mad. All of this, of course, was projection. Amid the frenzied interest in his character and his investigation, Mueller worked in complete silence.
These days, he’s seen differently. His report, which failed to dent Trump politically, is now viewed, in many quarters, as a tragically missed opportunity; with the passage of time, Mueller’s by-the-book stoicism has come to look less heroic, and more like witlessness. Over the summer, Jeffrey Toobin outlined the bones of such a case in a book and New Yorker article. Toobin argues that Mueller failed in two defining respects: he did not issue a subpoena for Trump’s testimony, and he refused to state, one way or another, whether he’d found prosecutable evidence that Trump obstructed justice. (Mueller’s office agreed to abide by a Justice Department rule that a sitting president can’t be indicted; Mueller felt that accusing Trump of crimes would be unfair since Trump wouldn’t have the chance to defend himself in court.) The report’s final judgment, consequently, was “confusing and inconclusive”—and William Barr, the attorney general, seized on the ambiguity to spin the report in Trump’s favor, releasing a misleading summary several weeks before the full report was made publicly available. “Trump shouldn’t be denouncing Mueller—he should be thanking him,” Toobin concludes, in the New Yorker article. “Mueller’s investigation was no witch hunt; his report was, ultimately, a surrender.”
Toobin’s criticisms and others like them—including the reaction to a forthright recent Senate report that many pundits thought did Mueller’s job better than Mueller did—are the observations of outsiders. This week, an insider weighed in, and basically echoed them. Andrew Weissmann, who was a key staffer in Mueller’s office, started to promote a new book (due out next week) in which he makes the case that he and his colleagues could have stated clearer legal conclusions, and that their failure to do so “left the playing field open” to the president and his spinners, a state of affairs that was ultimately exacerbated by Mueller’s aversion to the spotlight. Mueller’s team, Weissmann writes, failed to probe Trump’s financial records, and shied away from steps—interviewing Ivanka Trump, for example—that they feared might end in a mauling from right-wing media (“look how they’re roughing up the president’s daughter”) and/or Trump furiously shutting the probe down. “We were left feeling like we had let down the American public, who were counting on us to give it our all,” Weissmann writes.
If our contemporaneous Mueller coverage was a first draft of history, the present wave of Mueller revisionism feels like a second or third draft. (Though in some ways, of course, Mueller’s report is still a first-draft concern, given ongoing Russian interference in US politics.) Implicitly, at least, the latest draft says much that is useful about the excesses of the media’s initial Mueller frenzy, which was marked by much excellent, careful reporting, but also by a torrent of breathless speculation. The portrait the liberal media painted of Mueller, it’s long been clear, was hagiography, and Toobin, Weissmann, and others present a convincing case that, in many key respects, he and his team made consequential and avoidable missteps.
The new draft of the Mueller story, however, can still feel overly personalized, even if its emphases are new. Mueller wasn’t a superhero, but nor, arguably, was he principally culpable for letting Trump wriggle off the hook. Barr’s dishonesty wasn’t primarily Mueller’s fault—it was Barr’s. Mueller had to labor, too, under restrictive Justice Department guidelines that make it hard to hold scandal-plagued presidents to account. In his book, Weissmann outlines institutional reforms that would make help with that. But, according to the Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, he doesn’t grapple with why so much of Trump’s behavior is “forgiven or forgotten by a significant portion of the country, or whether the criminal justice system is an effective tool against the perceived moral bankruptcy of a president.” The press has a major stake in such matters. Any comprehensive account of Mueller’s failures must also account for the failures of the media—not just on the right, where propagandists smeared Mueller’s entire effort, but among mainstream outlets, too.
Mueller’s report could certainly have reached clearer conclusions—but it did contain reams of damning details that were unavoidably complicated, no matter how they were presented. It wasn’t Mueller’s job to hand us a pre-written story; it was our job to sieve conclusions out of the minutiae. When the report was released, many outlets did a good job of that. By then, however, Barr’s spin exonerating Trump had been baked into the public consciousness—thanks, in no small part, to credulous media coverage that was entirely avoidable. (As I wrote at the time, we were given ample warning of Barr’s intentions, but often ignored them.) And the many scandals outlined in the report quickly slipped from the headlines once it became clear that Trump wouldn’t face meaningful political blowback for them. Last summer, we hyped Mueller’s appearance before Congress as a possible turning point in the story, even though he gave us fair warning that he was going to stick to his script; when he did just that, many pundits graded him not on the alarming substance of what he said, but on the dry optics of his delivery.
Whatever draft of the Mueller story we’re now working on, political consequences for Trump remain central to its telling. As other recent episodes—the furor over Bob Woodward’s book, for example—have shown, it’s tempting to imagine that, if those tasked with holding Trump to account had only done x or y better, things may have turned out differently. As it pertains to Mueller, specifically, such thinking strikes me as wishful; it’s worth keeping in mind that Trump was subsequently impeached—over brazen misconduct whose central, simple facts he openly conceded—yet got away with it. When future drafts of the Trump story are written, his prolific evading of accountability will fill volumes, and they will be populated by a wide array of characters, from Republican senators to social-media tycoons. Mueller’s failures—while more than worthy of reflection—may come to look comparatively small. The failures of the press may loom larger.
Below, more on Mueller and Russia:
- Read the report: In April 2019, just after the Mueller report was published, Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic at the New York Times, reviewed it for CJR, and did not judge it to be insufficiently compelling. Mueller’s team “laid out a minutely detailed narrative that authoritatively exposes the lies and false storylines that we have been living with since the 2016 campaign,” Kakutani wrote. “It’s a riveting account that has the visceral drama of a detective novel, spy thriller, or legal procedural.”
- Comparing Mueller to the press: Last week, James Fallows wrote, for The Atlantic, that in repeating the mistakes they made during the 2016 campaign in 2020, many in the media are erring in the same ways that Mueller did. Both have been guilty of observing “proprieties that would have made sense when dealing with other figures in other eras,” Fallows wrote. “But now they’re dealing with Donald Trump, and he sees their behavior as a weakness he can exploit relentlessly.” (Last Wednesday, I responded to Fallows’s broader arguments in this newsletter.)
- Still at it: Yesterday, Josh Rogin, an opinion writer at the Washington Post, reported that a CIA assessment (per two sources who have viewed it) has concluded that Vladimir Putin and his top aides are “probably directing” Russia’s interference in the 2020 election, which, so far, seems mostly to have taken the form of efforts to smear Joe Biden. NBC News subsequently confirmed Rogin’s story.
- On the subject of smearing Biden: Shortly before we published today’s newsletter, the Republican senators Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley, who both chair Senate committees, published a report containing a long-anticipated attack on Biden’s son Hunter and his work on the board of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma—a matter that was at the heart of Trump’s impeachment. According to the Post, the new report concludes that Hunter Biden’s conduct was “‘awkward,’ ‘problematic’ and interfered with ‘efficient execution of policy’ for the Obama administration,” but also offers “few specific examples” that it affected Joe Biden’s work as vice president.
- Alexei Navalny: Also this morning, Alexei Navalny—the Russian opposition leader (and sometime journalist) who was poisoned in the country last month, and has since been receiving treatment in Germany—was discharged from hospital. He has said that he intends to return to Russia.
Other notable stories:
- Recently, Amy Dorris, a former model, told The Guardian that Trump sexually assaulted her in 1997. The paper corroborated aspects of her account, but the story quickly slipped from the news, and, Monica Hesse writes for the Post, many politicians and voters don’t seem to care. “If there are more allegations, those probably won’t matter, either,” Hesse adds. “If a woman came to me with a story, it’s hard to imagine encouraging her to come forward publicly. It would be a lie to promise her that her story would change anything.”
- The Markup, an investigative site that focuses on tech, launched Blacklight—a new tool, designed by the data journalist Surya Mattu, that allows users to look up a website and find out how it is invading their privacy. The “complex economy of surveillance remains a major financial underpinning for all the services we use online, from shopping, to news,” Julia Angwin, The Markup’s founder, writes. Blacklight is like “a meat thermometer that you can stick into any website and get an instant reading on its level of creepiness.”
- In June, management at Condé Nast agreed to recognize a union formed by staffers at Wired, but three months on, that still hasn’t happened. Yesterday, the union staged a half-day work stoppage in protest of “inexcusable delays.” It also claimed that bosses are trying to exclude reviews writers and audience-development staffers from bargaining even though, the union wrote on Twitter, they “are editorial employees—period.”
- Earlier this year, the Institute for Nonprofit News surveyed member newsrooms about the diversity of their staff. “With more than 285 members, INN found that ‘about 60’ are led by people of color and 30 are dedicated to covering underrepresented communities,” Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire reports. “Despite [an] upward trend, INN found the majority of respondents said their staff does not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”
- For The Nation, Tom Scocca reflects on his career in the fractured world of independent journalism. “As it seemed I was swinging from limb to limb through a flourishing jungle of journalistic opportunity, a desert had been advancing behind me,” he writes. “People still wanted to read the writing, but the circulatory system of money that had made the writing possible was punctured and bleeding out, and draining into Silicon Valley.”
- Yesterday, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson released All We Can Save, an anthology of “provocative and illuminating essays from women at the forefront of the climate movement.” Contributors to the book include the climate journalists Emily Atkin, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Amy Westervelt, and Naomi Klein. Atkin’s newsletter, HEATED, is convening a book club to discuss the work; you can find out more here.
- This year’s Time 100 list, an annual roster of influential people, is out, and journalists feature on it. They include Julie K. Brown, of the Miami Herald, whose reporting helped lead to the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein; Shiori Ito, a Japanese journalist who became a leading figure in that country’s #MeToo movement; and Lina Attalah, whose independent news site, Mada Masr, has faced relentless harassment from the authorities in Egypt.
- Officials in Philadelphia disabled a tool that allowed users to enter a person’s name and see what properties they own. The city cited security concerns given the “temperament of events right now.” (Activists have staged protests outside officials’ homes; it’s not clear how they located them.) The tool still identifies owners if users enter specific addresses, and raw data remains available for download. The Philadelphia Inquirer has more.
- And Mario Koran, a reporter for The Guardian, reflects on his experiences of journalism, alcoholism, and incarceration. “As I’ve written about communities of color pushing back against the forces that oppress them,” he writes, “I’ve come to understand that addiction is like the criminal justice system—it imprints on you and calls you back, even when you think you’re free.”
ICYMI: Journalism’s Gates keepers
Nonprofit news organizations are becoming more diverse, but they still lag behind the communities they cover
Poynter now offers six months of parental leave, putting it on par time-wise with much larger media companies
Death milestones always feel arbitrary and inadequate; when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, they’re also hard to measure. So it is with the latest grim statistic: the US has—or is about to, depending on your source—hit 200,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19. Time magazine unveiled a black-bordered cover marking the 200,000 figure nearly two weeks ago; as of this morning, the Johns Hopkins dashboard, a trusted source for many news outlets, still listed 199,865 deaths; in any case, we’ve known for a while that the true, if unconfirmed, total count is likely way higher that official estimates allow. (The New York Times was confident enough to report that the 200,000 marker had been surpassed all the way back on August 12.) We clutch at numbers of apparent shared significance, but they’ve already gone by. And the deaths go on.
Amid all the tragedy is a lot of farce. That word could reasonably be applied to almost any aspect of America’s official pandemic response, but it feels especially applicable to the bungled, contradictory, often-dishonest coronavirus messaging coming out of President Trump and his allies, via the news media and the federal health bureaucracy itself. Nearly two weeks ago, we learned, via Bob Woodward’s new book, that Trump knew the virus would be bad back in February, but downplayed it publicly anyway. Since then, a series of stories—which, individually, excited less enraged media coverage than the Woodward revelation—have shown, collectively, that duplicitous messaging remains a central problem today.
ICYMI: Inside the Black Vault
Two days after the Woodward story dropped, Politico’s Dan Diamond was first to report that Trump appointees within the Department of Health and Human Services—including Michael Caputo, a Trump campaign official turned departmental spokesperson, and Paul Alexander, an adviser to Caputo—routinely sought to meddle with weekly scientific reports that are issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and are not typically subject to political review. The meddling, Diamond wrote, had been interpreted by agency officials as an effort “to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals,” with the end goal of boosting Trump’s optimistic coronavirus narrative. CDC officials pushed back on the interference, but “increasingly agreed to allow the political officials to review the reports and, in a few cases, compromised on the wording,” Diamond added.
Two days later, things got weird. Caputo went on his Facebook page, started live-streaming, and unleashed a barrage of unhinged claims. He accused CDC officials of “sedition” and of belonging to an anti-Trump “resistance unit” that meets at coffee shops (them again) to discuss how to undermine the president. (“To allow people to die so that you can replace the president [is a] grievous sin. And these people are all going to hell.”) He spoke of a supposed threat from leftist “hit squads” should Trump win the election—“You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going”—and advised those watching to stock up on ammunition. He also said that he was struggling with his mental health, in part because he has been “waking up every morning and talking about dead Americans.” He insisted that he was planning to stay in his job as HHS spokesperson, but three days later, he announced that he would be taking a leave of absence, citing medical grounds and violent threats against his family. At the same time, Alexander, Caputo’s adviser, quit the department.
That was last Wednesday. The same day, Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, testified before Congress; among other things, he said that even if a COVID vaccine were forthcoming, most Americans wouldn’t have access to it until next year, and that masks are “more guaranteed” than a vaccine to protect against the disease. Soon after, Trump, who thinks a quick vaccine would be good for his election prospects, publicly rebuked Redfield who, Trump said, had likely misunderstood the question he was being asked. Later in the day, a spokesperson for Redfield put out a statement conceding Trump’s point and walking back Redfield’s earlier comment—but the spokesperson then tried to retract that concession. Tweets by Redfield himself sowed further confusion.
The CDC wasn’t done for the week. On Friday, the agency took two seemingly positive steps. It reversed its advice—issued last month, reportedly by political appointees rather than scientists—that people who have been in close contact with a known COVID carrier needn’t bother getting a test unless they have symptoms. And it added language to its website acknowledging that the virus can be transmitted by small airborne droplets. Outside experts praised both developments as good science—but then, yesterday, the CDC did another U-turn, deleting the new language on droplets. Observers were incredulous. (“HOLY HELL,” Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist, tweeted.) Critics of the CDC’s recent performance smelled fresh political meddling—but an agency scientist told Lena H. Sun, of the Washington Post, that on this occasion, CDC staff “shot our own foot.” A CDC spokesperson said that draft language had been posted “in error.”
Then, later yesterday, things got so weird that they made the Caputo video look routine. Lachlan Markay, of the Daily Beast, reported that William B. Crews, a communications staffer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also blogs for RedState—a right-wing website where, under the pen name “streiff,” he has routinely disparaged his boss, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as an “attention-grubbing and media-whoring” “mask Nazi,” and spread ludicrous misinformation about the pandemic. (“It is safe to say that the entire Wuhan virus scare was nothing more or less than a massive fraud perpetrated upon the American people by ‘experts,’” Crews/streiff wrote in June. “If there were justice, we’d send [a] few dozen of these fascists to the gallows and gibbet their tarred bodies in chains until they fall apart.”) After Markay brought streiff’s true identity to the attention of NIAID officials, Crews abruptly “retired.”
As the reaction to Woodward’s book showed, Trump’s lies and whiplash hypocrisy are reliable drivers of our fury—but the more recent stories outlined above prove that the government’s COVID messaging crisis goes much farther than the guy at the top. There are many good, honest people working within the federal health system, of course, and the “retirement” of bad apples can help stop the rot; still, it’s clear, too, that once-respected agencies have a glaring credibility problem that will be hard to fix, even if Trump is ousted in November. In the meantime, more Americans will die, however we count their loss.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- A previous mess: In July, the Trump administration ordered hospitals to stop reporting key coronavirus data to the CDC, which had been gathering the information and making it public, and instead hand it to a private contractor of HHS—a move that, as I wrote at the time, sparked widespread fears about transparency. Since then, the new reporting system has been dogged by further controversy. Last month, Dr. Deborah Birx, a senior administration health official, intimated that the CDC would resume collecting the data, but Caputo subsequently seemed to contradict her. Later, administration officials threatened to name and shame—and even withhold Medicare and Medicaid funding from—hospitals that don’t comply with their new system’s reporting requirements.
- Keeping our focus: For Storybench, a project of the journalism school at Northeastern University, Rahul Bhargava analyzed the preponderance of COVID news stories in the US over time, and found that “since its peak in March, media coverage mentioning coronavirus has tapered off while cases continue to rise—a troubling trend.” In late May, following the police killing of George Floyd, media-wide COVID coverage dropped by ten percent; barring a couple of peaks, it has declined further since then.
- The impact on the news business: The pandemic has hammered advertising revenues, and media companies continue to make sharp cuts. Last week, Meredith Corporation cut 130 jobs across its local news group, and a further fifty positions across its national magazine group. According to Poynter, last week also saw at least twenty-three layoffs at newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises; yesterday, another Lee paper, the Tulsa World, laid off ten staffers. Recently, CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s joint Journalism Crisis Project launched a new tool tracking newsroom cutbacks amid the pandemic. You can explore it here, and you can subscribe to Lauren Harris’s weekly Journalism Crisis Project newsletter here.
- Yesterday’s context: For CJR, Nicholas Hirshon, Amber Roessner, and Kristin Gustafson explore how journalists are using historical research to illuminate their work, including on the pandemic and its attendant economic downturn. “In the spring, when the coronavirus upended American life, newspapers in Charlotte, Cleveland, New York, and Santa Cruz turned to archival sources—including their own back issues—to describe how their cities coped with the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918,” they write.
Other notable stories:
- On Friday, following two days in repose on the portico of the Supreme Court, the body of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday, will lie in state at the US Capitol; she will become the first woman and the first associate justice of the Court to be afforded that distinction. Yesterday, Trump said he would wait until Friday or Saturday to nominate Ginsburg’s replacement, out of “respect”—then claimed that her dying wish (that Trump not nominate a new justice before the election) was faked. (It wasn’t.) Kevin Roose, a tech columnist at the Times, notes that while such conspiracy theories typically bubble up to Trump via right-wing media, he appears to have invented this one himself.
- In recent months, journalists including the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin have made the case that Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump, the 2016 election, and Russia failed the public in key respects. In a new book, Andrew Weissmann, who worked on the probe (and now appears on MSNBC), agrees. Mueller’s report, Weissman writes, failed to articulate clear conclusions, and thus “left the playing field open” for Trump and his allies to spin its findings. Weissmann discussed the book with The Atlantic’s George Packer.
- The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein reports that—as well as snatching people off the streets and compiling intel reports on journalists—federal officials handling the recent unrest in Portland, Oregon, also intercepted protesters’ phone communications. The Department of Homeland Security “has not yet come clean to the public about the full extent of its intelligence operations in Portland,” Klippenstein writes. (The Nation is also out today with a redesign of its print magazine, including a new logo. You can check it out here.)
- Meg James and Daniel Hernandez, of the LA Times, took a deep look at a summer of “turmoil and scandals” inside their own newsroom, for an article the paper assigned in a bid to be “transparent” with readers. They spoke with more than 50 current and former staffers, and found that “managerial missteps and ethical lapses have contributed to anxiety and distrust.” (VICE previously published a deep dive on problems at the paper.)
- Sway—a new podcast focused on “power and influence” that is hosted by Kara Swisher and produced by the opinion section of the New York Times—debuted yesterday. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday, and will feature Swisher’s interviews with leaders from the worlds of politics, business, culture, and more. For the first episode, Swisher spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; you can listen here.
- Recently, the government of Australia moved to force Facebook and Google to pay news outlets for their content; in response, Facebook threatened simply to block Australian users’ access to news. The situation, Hal Crawford writes for Nieman Lab, could spell the end for digital-only publishers that rely on Facebook traffic, leaving traditional outlets in the country (many of which are owned by Rupert Murdoch) as “the relative winners.”
- Last month, Nataliya Lyubneuskaya, a reporter with the independent Belarusian outlet Nasha Niva, was covering protests that followed a disputed election in the country when law enforcement shot her with a rubber bullet. Lyubneuskaya spent thirty-eight days in hospital and is demanding a criminal inquiry. The government hasn’t yet opened one—but has moved to fine Nasha Niva over the way it handled its staffer’s injury. Meduza has more.
- In other press-freedom news, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, filed a criminal complaint against four staffers at a right-wing newspaper in Greece after it ran the headline “Fuck off, Mr. Erdoğan.” Elsewhere, Algeria banned M6, a French TV channel, after it broadcast a documentary on protests in the country. And police in Singapore are going after the news site New Naratif (which E. Tammy Kim recently profiled for CJR).
- And the stock prices of banks including Deutsche Bank and HSBC fell yesterday—one day after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, BuzzFeed, and media partners around the world revealed that such institutions routinely move payments that they themselves consider to be suspicious. ICIJ’s Will Fitzgibbon has more.