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What is democracy?

With a tip of the hat to the estimable Chris Lydon, host of the “Open Source” program on NPR, here is a gem written by E.B. White in the middle of World War II. 

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more unnamedthan half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

— E. B. White,

Notes and Comment, The New Yorker, July, 3, 1943

 

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10 Ways the Media Could Improve Coverage of Trump (but probably won’t)

By Christopher B. Daly

After two years in office, President Trump has proven that he has one great skill: the ability to dominate news coverage. Not only does he generate a torrent of news, he has become a great manipulator of public opinion – distracting us, distorting facts, distributing conspiracy theories, and flat-out dissembling.

That approach to news-making presents novel challenges to the press corps. Those journalists who operate in good faith and take an empirical approach to the job should maxresdefaultbe proud of their important work. But to make sure that journalism is not misunderstood or undermined by others, these times call for high standards and new approaches. Clearly, Trump cannot be counted on to elevate the discourse, so it will be up to members of the news media to impose discipline, standards, and new protocols.

At the start of a new year, it is a good time to consolidate some of the lessons learned since Trump took office. Based on my decades as a reporter and on my research into the history of American journalism, I believe the following changes would begin to address the president’s rampage through the norms of journalism:

 

  1. NEVER, NEVER BROADCAST HIM LIVE. It is almost certain that he will say something false, knowingly false, kooky, plain wrong, insulting, or inscrutable. By carrying him live, journalists lose the chance to DO THEIR JOB – which is to fact-check, verify, provide context and background, seek out other points of view, etc. He has squandered the right to use mass media. He should always be on a delay, allowing a minimum of time to check his assertions, prepare a corrective chyron, or mute a flat-out falsehood.
  2. DON’T ALLOW TRUMP TO SERVE AS YOUR ONLY SOURCE. If the president tweets something, that might be news. But there is no journalistic reason to just pick up his tweet and run with it. We are not here to storify Trump’s tweets. Yes, his words can be parts of stories, but they cannot be the main or only source of information. “The President Tweeted Something” is not a headline anyone needs.
  3. DON’T SINK TO HIS LEVEL. You know what I mean.
  4. COVER HIS ACTIONS MORE THAN HIS WORDS. That is, cover everything he does, but do not cover everything he says. Cover his administration, not his person. There are dozens of appointments, actions, policy decisions, executive orders, and the like that make up the reality of a presidential administration.
  5. DIVIDE THE LABOR. Let the AP cover the few remaining, sporadic White House briefings. Under Sarah Huckabee Sanders they are practically useless anyway. And never broadcast or stream her live either. (See #1)
  6. STICK TO FACTS. Never exaggerate, and double-check every detail. In reporting on Trump, the error rate must be zero, because any mistakes will be used against the news media. Critics will assume that errors were made in bad faith, not in good faith. So, mistakes will be cited as “evidence” of a political agenda.
  7. FOLLOW UP. Trump generates so many promises and threats that it is nearly impossible to keep up, but it’s important to try. At his rallies, in his Twitter feed, and in his off-the-cuff remarks, the president leaves behind a trail of items that cry out for follow-up. Keep score.
  8. SPREAD OUT. Get out of the White House and report on what’s going on in departments, agencies, and lobbying firms. Trump takes up so much bandwidth that it’s easy to miss the shenanigans going on deep inside his administration.
  9. COVER THE FALLOUT. The policies of Trump and his appointees in Washington have impacts far from D.C. Travel around and see what the elimination of regulations is doing to our streams and forests. Find out how the rank and file soldiers and sailors really feel about this commander in chief. Ask people in other countries how the U.S. is affecting them. Get out of Washington, and report from the ground up.
  10. OWN YOUR AUDIENCE. Now more than ever, it’s important to connect to your audience. Show your readers and viewers how you are looking out for them – whether it’s by covering waste, fraud, and abuse in Trump’s world or by examining how his policies are affecting working families. Be the voice of the people – and let the people know it.

Throughout our history, journalists have faced many challenges. Now it is the turn of the admirable men and women who deliver the real news to carry on the great tradition of reporting on the sayings and doings of the powerful.

Pulitzer, Joseph - Verleger, Ungarn/ USA/ undatiertAs Joseph Pulitzer, a great publisher and editor who did battle with presidents in his day, defined the stakes in this challenge: “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.”

 

 

Chris Daly, a former reporter with the AP and the Washington Post, teaches journalism and history at Boston University. He is the author of “The Journalist’s Companion” and “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.” 

 

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NYTimes is Thriving (not failing!)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Contrary to what President Trump says, the New York Times is thriving — not just in terms of its original, fact-based reporting but the company (and just as importantly)  is also thriving in terms of its business. The Times is growing and profitable. The Times has found enough digital subscribers to carry it far into the future.

The Times, which may be the country’s most im-images

portant journalistic institution, is enjoying a “virtuous circle” of professional and business success in which each type of success reinforces the other.

Great reporting –> more readers –> more subscriptions –> more money –> more great reporting –> 

How do we know this? From the sworn, audited statements that the NYTCo is obligated, by law, to divulge to stockholders and other investors every quarter. Let’s look at some highlights from the company’s latest quarterly report:

–The paper set a record of more than 4 million total subscribers worldwide. They are in every country and continent (including Antarctica!).

–That number includes a more important record: more than 3 million subscribers who pay for a digital-only subscription. This is important because those people are probably going to be around a lot longer than then 1 million or so subscribers to the print edition. Not only that, but the digital-only subscribers are customers who can be reached by the Times virtually for free. To reach them, the newspaper does not have to buy newsprint, operate giant printing presses, and pay for fleets of delivery trucks.

–The growth in digital subscriptions is accelerating. The paper reported a net increase in the most recent quarter of more than 200,000 — the best quarter since the “Trump bump” in the period right after the 2016 election.

–Digital revenue (the money the paper gets from all those digital subscriptions) is also rising. In the last nine months, it topped $450 million — or over $600 million a year, which is probably plenty of money to operate the Times newsroom indefinitely.

Profits are up. Operating profits rose 30 percent in the last quarter to reach $41.4 million — or, well over $160 million a year.

–The stock price is up.

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NYT stock price 

Since Trump was elected in late 2016, the value of a share of Class A NYTCo stock has more than doubled.

At the Times, the business desk buries these stories, and the editors absolutely refuse to celebrate their good news or do anything resembling spiking the football in the end zone. But any way you look at it, the New York Times is not failing.

 

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A warning from a century ago: Resist criminalizing thought, speech, and expression

By Christopher B. Daly

Below is a piece I wrote for the Made in History section of The Washington Post.

(The original had a different illustration.)

 

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Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History Perspective

Why we shouldn’t criminalize political speech — even the worst of it

A marketplace of ideas is our best hope for functional democracy.

By Christopher B. Daly May 24 at 6:00 AM

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America,” now available in an expanded second edition.

A CENTURY AGO this month, Congress passed a Sedition Act, effectively making it illegal to express opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s war policies and abridging Americans’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press.

With candidate Donald Trump arguing protesters should be arrested and now-President Trump making threats on a regular basis against what he calls “fake news,” hinting that he would like to rein in a free press, it seems timely to consider the Sedition Act of 1918 and see what can be learned from that history.

Wilson had campaigned for reelection in 1916, in part on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War!” Things changed quickly, however, in 1917. By April, Wilson had decided that German attacks on U.S. shipping were intolerable, and he attempted to lead a reluctant nation into war. Because he did not entirely trust the public to support his push, Wilson was concerned about enforcing “loyalty,” as he understood it.

With the U.S. mobilizing for war and Democrats in control of the federal government, Congress gave Wilson a new tool for enforcing that loyalty: the Espionage Act. While criminalizing expression, the Espionage Act was fairly non-controversial — prohibiting behavior that amounted to military spying (taking U.S. military secrets without authority and selling or giving them to a hostile power in wartime).

But it also set a dangerous limit on freedom of speech. Whenever the United States was at war, the law made it a federal crime to make “false statements” intended to interfere with the armed forces or to “willfully obstruct” the military draft. Violations could be punished by fines of up to $10,000 or by 20 years in prison.

Essentially, Congress made it a crime to use words to oppose the war effort or to encourage young men to resist the draft. The greatest immediate impact of the new law fell on the socialist and German-language newspapers, many of which were promptly suppressed.

In 1918, while U.S. forces were fighting in Europe, the majority of American newspapers enthusiastically supported the war effort. Most cooperated with the government’s efforts to shape the coverage, and when in doubt, most editors engaged in self-censorship. Even so, the president and Congress were not taking any chances.

So Congress passed another, more draconian law abridging freedom of the press, the Sedition Act of 1918 (technically, a batch of amendments to the Espionage Act). For the first time since 1798, Congress deemed expression of certain ideas a crime. The result was, according to one legal scholar, “the most repressive legislation in American history.”

The 1918 law made it a crime to publish “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” or any language intended to provoke scorn about the American government, system of government, Constitution, armed forces or flag. It also prohibited displaying the flag of a foreign enemy and any advocacy for the curtailment of the production of goods necessary to prosecute the war effort. Violations could be punished by fines up to $10,000 or 20 years in prison. Both the House and Senate rapidly approved the measure, and Wilson signed it into law in May 1918.

The plain meaning of the new law was clear: Watch what you say. If you displease the government, you will go to jail.

sedition_cartoonFederal prosecutors made ample use of the statute during the remaining six months of the war. One month after the law was signed, for example, prosecutors brought charges against the most prominent socialist in the United States, Eugene V. Debs. As the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, Debs had captured almost a million votes. Debs was a visible critic of the war with a substantial following nationwide. Yet his popularity didn’t prevent Debs from being sentenced to 10 years in federal prison — just for giving a speech.

The wartime limits upon freedom of speech and press led to a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings after the war ended in 1919, which permanently circumscribed freedom of expression, particularly in wartime.

In the landmark case of Schenck v. U.S., socialist Charles Schenck challenged a prison sentence he had received not for an act of resistance, but for authoring a pamphlet urging voters to tell their member of Congress to vote against the draft. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. spoke for the court, asserting that all speech must be considered in context. He famously used the example of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, which, while being a civic duty in a burning theater, was dangerous and reckless in a theater not on fire.

Applying this logic to wartime, Holmes concluded that Schenck’s ideas amounted to a “clear and present danger” to a country at war, and the court upheld his conviction. The court also upheld Debs’s conviction. Holmes explained that if “one purpose of the speech . . . was to oppose [the] war, . . . and if, in all the circumstances, that would be its probable effect, it would not be protected.”

The Court split in Abrams v. U.S., a case in which the defendants were sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison for a political pamphlet that charged that Wilson had ordered an invasion of Russia not for his stated reason — to open an eastern front against Germany — but to roll back the Russian Revolution. Citing Holmes’s reasoning in Schenck, the majority unsurprisingly upheld the convictions of the defendants.

But Holmes himself dissented, along with Justice Louis Brandeis, laying out the case against the Sedition Act — one that resonates today. He argued that the framers of the Constitution believed that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” Clearly, Holmes had come to believe that Americans were best served when truth and error were free to do battle in a wide-open “marketplace of ideas” in which the government plays no role.

In spite of the Court’s willingness to countenance limits upon free speech, on Dec. 13, 1920, Congress repealed the Sedition Act while leaving intact the older provisions that made up the Espionage Act. That law remains in effect today, banning criminal deeds.

But we have now survived a century without a Sedition Act, and we should heed the clarion warning from Holmes. The First Amendment protects political speech for a reason — the founders wisely understood that an open marketplace of ideas provided the best chance for democratic governance to work. We should not be in a rush to put Americans in jail for the things they think, say, print, broadcast or tweet.

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Abolish the NCAA (graduation edition)

By Christopher B. Daly

For a couple of years now, I have been urging the abolition of the NCAA. Not reform, but the outright dismantling of an organization that is deeply corrupt and brings no good to America’s college campuses.

In addition to the facts and arguments in previous posts, here is more evidence. Boston Globe Derrick Z. Jackson has been keeping track of how many big-time NCAA players actually get the one thing that going to college might do that would benefit them for the rest of their adult lives — getting a bachelor’s degree.

The sad fact is, most NCAA basketball players do not graduate with a diploma. Big-time college basketball operates pretty much as a minor league for the NBA with teams that just happen to be located on college campuses.

Here is Jackson’s latest report card on college graduation rates for the NCAA’s elite basketball players. Some lowlights:

–UCLA: 20% (for black players)

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–Carolina: 40%

–Kentucky 60% (for black players)

In the classroom, those are failing grades.

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Congress is questioning the wrong guy

By Christopher B. Daly 

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appears today before a congressional committee, the social media magnate is bound to attract pervasive media coverage. But the spotlight is on the wrong party.

The real culprit in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal is Robert Mercer, the major backer of Cambridge Analytica, who has frankly acknowledged his willingness to use his hedge-fund fortune to manipulate American politics. Facebook certainly had a role in the scandal, but the driving force was Mercer, not Zuckerberg.

Republicans are eager to question Zuckerberg in part because of a long-running campaign by Fox News to discredit not just Facebook but all of Silicon Valley. The Fox script is a familiar one: the “cool kids” in California look down on us, and they support all those liberals in the Democratic Party. Therefore, they are fair game — they do not enjoy the default support that Americans who run businesses otherwise enjoy from Fox and the Republican Party.

By the same logic, there is one key player in the Facebook data scandal who will almost certainly NOT be summoned before Congress: Mercer. That’s because congressional Republicans are terrified of Mercer. He is a billionaire who spends tens of millions of dollars a year supporting conservative candidates for office. He is a principal backer of Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy political consultants who helped elect Donald Trump in 2016.

If you want to hear Mercer testifying in Congress, you’ll have to wait for a Democratic majority to get back in power and resume governing.

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source: Campaign Legal Center.

 

 

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Zuckerberg is not the real culprit. (It’s Mercer.)

By Christopher B. Daly

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is on the hot seat. He is taking a lot of heat this week for Facebook’s role in the assault on American democracy that took place during the 2016 presidential election.

He deserves a lot of the criticism — for not protecting his users’ privacy, for putting jv14ju53t6xpmm9ojuzhprofits above all, for lacking candor at every step of the way.

But he is not the real villain in this piece. The fact is, he was played. Facebook (meaning not just the company but also the vast “community” of users) was used by the real villain.

The moving party in all this was Robert Mercer. Facebook was just sitting there — ripe and perhaps willing to be exploited. But to his credit, Zuckerberg did not embark on a

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US billionaire Robert Mercer in Washington DC in March this year. Photograph: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post via Getty Images

stealth campaign to change the outcome of our presidential election in ways that damaged the electoral process and stuck us with a president who is — shall we say — not making America great in any way, shape, or form.

That role was played by Robert Mercer. He is the billionaire who decided to take the fortune he made as a hedge fund manager and deploy it in politics.

Here’s a quick bio:

Born in 1946 at the very leading edge of the Baby Boom. Raised in New Mexico.

Got his bachelor’s degree in physics and math at the publicly funded state-run University of New Mexico.

He got experience in writing computer programs at the taxpayers’ expense while working in a weapons lab at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

Then, he topped off his education at the public’s expense by getting a PhD from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).

Later, he joined the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, where he made a fortune in the stock market (which functions only because it is regulated, at taxpayer expense, so it does not operate as a den of thieves).

And what was his take-away from all the benefits he derived from all those publicly funded or regulated operations? Apparently, his reaction was a strong hatred of government, regulation, and taxes.

Thanks a lot. After all we did for you, this is the gratitude we get?

It gets worse. Because he is a billionaire (in a society where the rule of law protects him and allows him to keep his money safe), he is able to act on his views in ways that are not available to ordinary citizens. Empowered specifically by the Citizens United ruling, which equated spending money with speaking and therefore allows essentially unlimited spending on politics, Mercer has taken a comprehensive approach:

–donating to conservative “think tanks” that produce the rationales for raging social inequality

–donating directly to Republican campaigns for office (Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and many others)

–secretly manipulating the outcome of the Brexit campaign

–providing financial backing for Breitbart News and supporting its chief Steve Bannon

–backing Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining and analysis firm, for the specific purpose of influencing American politics. It was Cambridge Analytica that picked Mark Zuckerberg’s pockets and used all that Facebook data to promote Trump and denigrate Hillary Clinton.

Compared to Mercer, Zuckerberg seems like a kinda sweet, perhaps naive, young guy. With any luck, Zuckerberg is wising up fast. He will need to if he wants to keep swimming in the same ocean as sharks like Mercer.

 

 

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