Here are some recent comments worth thinking about:
–After seeing “Spotlight,” NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan expresses concern over the state of investigative reporting by the nation’s regional newspapers. (I guess “regional newspapers” is Timesspeak for papers that the Times respects but does not consider in its league — i.e., Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee.)
–“On the Media” views with dismay the current state of political rhetoric. The show even uses the L-word. (To listen, click on the link, then hit “This Week’s Show.”)
–On CNN, “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter went a few bruising rounds with Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson on this question: “Is Donald Trump the “post-truth” candidate?” Pierson is one tough cookie, and expect to see and hear a lot more from her.
–The battle over ad-blocking rages on. I don’t like most ads, and I happily use an ad-blocking app on my iPhone. My only complaint is that some ads still slip through. Now, I am the first to say that the news business needs to work as a business if it is to succeed and do all the other
Illustration by Sam Manchester for NYT
things we want from it. My solution: allow customers like to pay more — even a lot more — to pay the full freight of news-gathering and eliminate the need for advertising altogether. This approach, which is reflexively pooh-poohed by certain people, has worked in the past: it was the basic model in the 18th century, and it has worked for I.F. Stone, for a lot of investment newsletters, and for a few others. Any takers?
–Finally, RIP to M. Roland Nachman, who was on the losing (and wrong) side of one of the landmark First Amendment cases in U.S. history — the Sullivan case of 1964. He seems to have been a decent fellow, but he was still wrong. Read more in my book, Covering America, at pages 312-13.
The following op-ed essay appeared the other day under the byline of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. I believe he is wrong on the facts and the politics. But that’s beside the point of this blog. I was struck by his rhetoric, highlighted in red below.
Bobby Jindal: I’m Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage
By BOBBY JINDAL
APRIL 23, 2015
BATON ROUGE, La. — THE debate over religious liberty in America presents conservatives and business leaders with a crucial choice.
In Indiana and Arkansas, large corporations recently joined left-wing activists to bully elected officials into backing away from strong protections for religious liberty. It was disappointing to see conservative leaders so hastily retreat on legislation that would simply allow for an individual or business to claim a right to free exercise of religion in a court of law.
Our country was founded on the principle of religious liberty, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Why shouldn’t an individual or business have the right to cite, in a court proceeding, religious liberty as a reason for not participating in a same-sex marriage ceremony that violates a sincerely held religious belief?
That is what Indiana and Arkansas sought to do. That political leaders in both states quickly cowered amid the shrieks of big business and the radical left should alarm us all.
As the fight for religious liberty moves to Louisiana, I have a clear message for any corporation that contemplates bullying our state: Save your breath.
In 2010, Louisiana adopted a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits government from unduly burdening a person’s exercise of religion. However, given the changing positions of politicians, judges and the public in favor of same-sex marriage, along with the potential for discrimination against Christian individuals and businesses that comes with these shifts, I plan in this legislative session to fight for passage of the Marriage and Conscience Act.
The legislation would prohibit the state from denying a person, company or nonprofit group a license, accreditation, employment or contract — or taking other “adverse action” — based on the person or entity’s religious views on the institution of marriage.
Some corporations have already contacted me and asked me to oppose this law. I am certain that other companies, under pressure from radical liberals, will do the same. They are free to voice their opinions, but they will not deter me. As a nation we would not compel a priest, minister or rabbi to violate his conscience and perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. But a great many Americans who are not members of the clergy feel just as called to live their faith through their businesses. That’s why we should ensure that musicians, caterers, photographers and others should be immune from government coercion on deeply held religious convictions.
The bill does not, as opponents assert, create a right to discriminate against, or generally refuse service to, gay men or lesbians. The bill does not change anything as it relates to the law in terms of discrimination suits between private parties. It merely makes our constitutional freedom so well defined that no judge can miss it.
I hold the view that has been the consensus in our country for over two centuries: that marriage is between one man and one woman. Polls indicate that the American consensus is changing — but like many other believers, I will not change my faith-driven view on this matter, even if it becomes a minority opinion.
A pluralistic and diverse society like ours can exist only if we all tolerate people who disagree with us. That’s why religious freedom laws matter — and why it is critical for conservatives and business leaders to unite in this debate.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 23, 2015, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe
Now, I am old enough to remember a time in our past when we had a real radical left. And I have studied enough American history to know that before the New Left, there was an earlier radical left. (Just consider: the socialist newspaper “Appeal to Reason” had more than a million readers at its heyday little over a century ago.)
Clearly, Jindal is trying to pull off an old conservative rhetorical trick here: labeling anyone who disagrees with him as a “radical.” If only. The one I found particularly amusing was his mash-up of “the shrieks of big business and the radical left.”
Then there’s his paradoxical coinage: “radical liberals.” Huh? Categorically, liberals are not radical. If they were radicals, they would be called radicals. He knows better (or he should). The people he is talking about are mainstream Democrats, centrists, independents, and some members of his own party.
The fact is, the far left in America is pretty much dormant nowadays — something that you might think Jindal would celebrate. But why let any hobgoblin go unemployed?
Get ready: the Benghazi controversy is about to get a big new dose of fuel. My friend and B.U. colleague Mitch Zuckoff has a new book coming out next week that tells the story of the tragic assault on the U.S. compound in Libya from the perspective of five American commandoes who were there. The five men have teamed up with Zuckoff to write their eyewitness account in a book titled “13 Hours.”
The release of the book is already reviving the arguments over who was to blame for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others during the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012. Most Republicans (including the Republican Party news outlet known as Fox News) are hoping to lay the blame on Hilary Clinton, on the grounds that she was U.S. Secretary of State at the time and therefore responsible for every bad thing that happened anywhere in the world during her entire tenure. The Republicans would like to use this tragedy to damage her politically as she gears up to run for president in 2016.
Most Democrats, meanwhile, would like to just see the whole thing disappear.
Most journalists, like Mitch, would like to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. Operating in a fact-based world, journalists (and historians, for that matter) need to establish a reliable, factual sequence of events before we can even have a political discussion. That’s what has been largely missing. Based on knowing Mitch Zuckoff for almost 30 years and working with him when we were both reporters at the AP and working with him since we have both been journalism professors at B.U., I can say that I would expect his version to be definitive.
The debate is flaring up, as you can see from these accounts from MSNBC, the Washington Post, and the NYTimes (which somehow “obtained” an advance copy of Mitch’s book). Fox News jumped with a “special report” by Bret Baier. The book’s release also just happens to coincide with the start of hearings into Benghazi by a special House committee. Stay tuned.
Do we get too much information about distant conflicts, or too little?
The New York Times offers two very different answers.
One comes from Anjan Sundaram, a former stringer for The Associated Press in Congo. So, he should know. He laments the withdrawal of American correspondents from many countries, the shuttering of overseas bureaus, and a general decline in the coverage of wars, violence, and the politics of many nations.
News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves.
The other view comes from my Boston University colleague David Carr, the Times‘ media columnist. In his Media Equation piece today, Carr describes the sensation of information-overload that he has been experiencing lately as social media bring him a flood of data about a rocket war in Gaza, plane crashes, and the other disasters.
Geopolitics and the ubiquity of social media have made the world a smaller, seemingly gorier place. If Vietnam brought war into the living room, the last few weeks have put it at our fingertips. On our phones, news alerts full of body counts bubble into our inbox, Facebook feeds are populated by appeals for help or action on behalf of victims, while Twitter boils with up-to-the-second reporting, some by professionals and some by citizens, from scenes of disaster and chaos.
In my view, they are both right, at least to a degree. Sundaram is correct that many U.S. news organizations have retreated (usually for economic reasons) from their commitment to covering international news. In particular, they have lost the budgets to pay for keeping full-time staffers in locations around the world that are not boiling over. I’m talking here about trained journalists who have the time to become multi-lingual, to learn about other cultures and societies, to develop good sources, and to roam about developing a good first-hand sense of the place they are covering. These are the kind of people you want to be able to in a crisis, to explain a self-immolation in Tibet, or a riot in Indonesia, or a drug war in Central America. And, yes, there are too few of those.
But that’s not the same issue David Carr was identifying. He is describing the flood of images, information, and opinions that come streaming at Americans from the hotspot of the week. And yes, he’s right about. In a country or region that America is paying attention to, the flow of news is usually pretty abundant. That doesn’t mean that it’s always very useful, only that there is a lot of it.
This general problem was identified almost a century ago by Walter Lippmann — journalist, author, and media theorist — in his landmark book about journalism, propaganda, and politics, Public Opinion.
News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable confusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them.
That is, for passive news consumers, the picture of the rest of the world is fragmentary, random, and often blurred or blacked out. I dare say that I am not the only avid consumer of U.S. news reporting who could not tell you a single meaningful thing about Indonesia (the fourth most populous country on Earth and the largest Muslim-majority nation). I don’t know anything about it, because no U.S. news organization has a single full-time correspondent there. I cannot say I am bombarded by social media (or any other kind) about Indonesia. But if something should happen there that draws the attention of the United States, we can be sure the firehose will be turned on, and we will start to absorb a torrent of images, facts, and opinions. Until our attention shifts.
As U.S. policy-makers argue over what to do next in Iraq (How about doing nothing?), it is worth recalling how this all came about. One source of the current situation that is worth recalling can be found in a rare moment of candor in the Bush White House. Thanks to the estimable journalist Ron Suskind, we have a glimpse into the interventionist mindset that propelled U.S. forces into ground action in Iraq. In a New York Times magazine piece from October, 17, 2004, Suskind reported on a conversation he had had in 2002 with a person he could not name but could only identify as a “senior adviser to Bush.” Later, Suskind was able to reveal the identity of that source: turns out, it was Karl Rove, the top political brain in the entire Bush operation.
Here’s what Karl Rove said:
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This is why we need journalists — not just to “study what they do,” but to hold them accountable.
I spend a lot of my waking hours at the intersection of Journalism and History, two empirical fields that share a lot of DNA. It’s an interesting place to hang out, and I wish more of the residents of each street would roam around more on the other street.
Today, a story in TPM about an item on a blog known as the 20Committee, nicely frames an issue that highlights one of the distinctions between the disciplines of journalism and history. The upshot is that journalists do us all a disservice when, in the name of non-partisanship or “fairness,” they throw up their hands and blame Democrats and Republicans equally for behaving in ways that are partisan, counter-productive, hypocritical or the like. As a former political journalist myself, I know this phenomenon well, and I know where it comes from: it is an adaptation to the pressure many American journalists feel to write as if they have no stake in the outcome, to show an aloof indifference to cause or candidate or party.
Many journalists, particularly in the mainstream media who work in the reporting tradition, apply this technique to coverage of hard problems like Obamacare or fracking or political spending. This is the problem often referred to as “false equivalence” or “false balance.”
But, I would submit, no historian who studies our current period in the future would be caught dead doing that. Every historian of our present situation will look at essentially the same facts and will exercise judgment.
[I will further predict that 95 percent of them will conclude that our current messes are the fault of Republicans. But, to use another favorite journalistic evasion, Only time will tell.]
When Hilary Clinton complained back in 1995 of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” trying to bring down her husband, she was not wrong. In fact, she and her husband’s political advisers were onto something: the interlocking network of conservative institutions set up since WWII to American politics to the right. As the Clintons realized, the right-wing think tanks and the right-wing media were mutually supportive in their campaign to concoct conservative political themes and inject them into the mainstream media. (Whether this system qualifies as a “consipracy” is a fine point, but Hilary was right to be paranoid: people were out to get her.)
A new batch of disclosures from the Clinton presidential library lay out the Clintons’ grasp of this phenomenon, circa 1995. They rightly identified Richard Mellon Scaife as a major source of funding for both conservative think tanks and media.
Scroll down past the heading sheets for a fascinating glimpse inside this usually hidden world.