Tag Archives: Politics

A Trump Scorecard

By Christopher B. Daly 

At the start of a new political era, in which Republicans hold the White House and both houses of Congress, here is a handy way of tracking the performance of the party in power.

The index:

  • 1   Number of Trump press conferences since July 27,2016
  • 0  Pages of his tax returns released by Donald Trump
  • 0  Number of new jobs in the U.S. coal industry
  • 0  Number of new health care plans enacted to replace Obamacare
  • 0  Number of Trump businesses sold to avoid conflicts of interest
  • 0 Number of attacks on Americans on U.S. soil by immigrants from the 7 banned nations.
  • 0 Number of Democrats included in Trump Cabinet.

 

Updated Feb. 3, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

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Trump is dangerously wrong on libel: Why journalists need Constitutional protections

By Christopher B. Daly

In his recent remarks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a thinly veiled threat to the news media: if he’s elected, he will (somehow) change the country’s libel laws to make it easier for him and others to sue the news media. It’s an issue with a history that is worth remembering.

Here’s Trump (from CNN):

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”

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Trump in Fort Worth (Getty)

 

Trump, who has lost a libel suit in the past, took his usual menacing tone and framed the issue as a conflict between himself and the media. The party that is missing from that formulation is the American people, who are the real clients of the First Amendment. That is the amendment that says, in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”

And that press freedom extends into the realm of libel, as I explained in my history of 51zTMdE6eDL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_this country’s journalism, Covering America. Trump is not the first public figure to try to use the libel laws as a backdoor way to achieve the ultimate goal of intimidating and controlling the news media. Here’s an excerpt from Covering America:

 

One of the greatest potential threats to the national coverage of the South arose in 1960 in Montgomery, Alabama. The means of intimidation was not the usual one—violence or the threat of it—but the legal system itself. At risk was the ability of the news media even to cover the movement in an honest, independent way.

The threat first arose in April 1960 as an unintended consequence of a decision by a group of civil rights activists to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Times decrying the “unprecedented wave of terror” being imposed on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and student activists. The ad stated: “Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. . . . They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person.” For good measure, the ad charged “grave misconduct” on the part of Montgomery officials as a group.

The city’s police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was incensed and decided to sue the Times for libel. (It didn’t matter that the offending passages were in the form of an advertisement and not a news story produced by a Times journalist; under U.S. law, a publisher is equally responsible for all content. It also didn’t matter that Sullivan was not singled out by name in the ad; under U.S. law, if an individual can reasonably be identified, that is enough.) Sullivan sued for $500,000 in an Alabama state court, charging the Times with publishing damaging falsehoods about him. The threat was clear: if Sullivan won, no paper could afford to cover the civil rights movement. “Silence, not money, was the goal,” as one recent history puts it.

For the Times’ Southern correspondent, Claude Sitton, the suit meant that he had better hightail it out of Alabama to avoid being subpoenaed, so he headed straight for the Georgia line, leaving Alabama essentially uncovered for the next two and a half years. For the paper’s lawyers, however, fleeing to another state was not an option, though they tried. It was difficult even to find a lawyer in Alabama who would agree to represent the Times. When one was finally found, the lawyers decided that their only recourse was to argue that the suit did not belong in an Alabama court, since the paper did hardly any business in the state. The jurisdictional argument didn’t work. The paper lost in the circuit court in Montgomery (where the judge criticized “racial agitators” and praised “white man’s justice”), and Sullivan was awarded the full $500,000—the largest libel judgment in that state’s history. The Times appealed, only to lose again. Further appeals did not look promising, since the U.S. Supreme Court had held that journalists had no constitutional protections against libel claims. So far, the use of the courts to silence the press was working.

The passage through all those courts took years, but the Times did not give up. Whatever the publisher and editors thought about civil rights, they were professionally committed to upholding ournalistic principles and prerogatives. The final appeal was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 6, 1964. The stakes were high. “The court would decide nothing less than how free the press really could be,” one observer has noted. “If the decision went against the Times,would reporters be vulnerable to every libel claim filed by a ticked-off sheriff?”

And it wasn’t just the Times that was at risk. All told, Southern officials had filed some seventeen libel suits against various news media, seeking damages that could total more than $288 million. If they succeeded, the cost of covering race in the South would be so prohibitive that even the wealthiest national news media would have to pack up and go home.

On March 9, 1964, the Court issued its unanimous ruling in the Sullivan case—in favor of the Times. The ruling, a milestone in expanding press freedom, rewrote many of the rules under which journalism has been practiced ever since. The key finding was that the law of libel had to yield to the First Amendment. The Court held that if the award to Sullivan were allowed to stand, the result would amount to a form of government censorship of the press, tantamount to a de facto Sedition Act, forcing every journalist to prove the truth of every statement, which would in turn lead to self-censorship. Instead, the high court said that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

To make sure that journalists had the breathing room they need to report on and editorialize about the performance of public officials, the Court determined that libel should not be used to trump press freedom. Public figures like Sullivan, who voluntarily enter the public arena by seeking office, must expect to take some criticism. Henceforth it would not be enough for a public official who wanted to win a libel suit just to prove that the published material was false and defamatory. Plaintiffs would have to meet a higher burden of proof, which the Court defined as “actual malice,” a legal term meaning that the material in dispute was published with the knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Either way, public figures would have a much harder time winning such suits. The Times—and the rest of the media—were free to go back to Alabama and wherever else the civil rights story took them. . .

For more on these issues, see the classic work by NYT journalist Tony Lewis, Make No Law. There is also a very worthwhile discussion in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

 

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Monday media roundup (the Tuesday edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Just wrapping up the spring semester, so I’ve been a little busier than usual. With apologies for the delay, here’s a rdp of recent developments and commentary about the news business:

–THE ECHO CHAMBER: Here’s an intelligent discussion of the recent Science article examining the “echo chamber” effect of social media — to wit, do people on Facebook arrange their feed such that they hear mostly (or exclusively) from people who agree F1.largewith them politically? The helpful folks at Harvard’s Journalist’s Resource have not only analyzed the Science article, they have also put in the context of other, similar studies.

–NYT NAILS THE SALON BIZ: The New York Times has struck again, this time with a major expose of a local industry that is much more widespread than Starbucks — the business of fingernails and toenails. The investigation by Sarah Maslin Nir has exploded, as it deserved to. She ripped the lid off a deeply corrupt industry. Reading her accounts of the women in the manicure business made me angry. It sounded like many of them had never left China: they have to buy their jobs with upfront money; they work for no wages at all until the boss decides they’re worth something; they make sub-minimum wages when they get paid; the chemicals they work around cause all kinds of harm; and on and on.

The Times has gotten a little of push-back for hyping the series (some of which is captured in this odd piece by the NYTimes‘ own public editor), but I disagree. What would Joseph Pulitzer have done? What would WR Hearst do with this kind of material? Of course, they’d shout it from the rooftops and demand reform.

One particularly impressive innovation: the Times published the articles in Chinese, Korean and Spanish as well as English.

The fallout so far: more than 1,300 comments; Gov. Cuomo is already submitting reform legislation; some of the owners are starting to cough up back pay; customers are finally beginning to wonder how their mani-pedis can be so cheap; and the journalist has been celebrated in print and on NPR.

For anyone in the news business not suffering from sour-grapes syndrome, there’s a lot to learn here. Start with the ancient wisdom: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

–ADVICE FOR JOURNALISTS: Speaking of the public editor, here is Margaret Sullivan’s wisdom about journalism, boiled down to 395 words. Way to go in being concise.

–BETTER LIVING THROUGH METRICS: Jeff Jarvis unloads on his latest Big Idea that Will Transform/Disrupt/Save Journalism. Here ya go. He says we need better metrics, which is probably true.

–RELIABLE SOURCES: Here’s the newly re-designed website for Brian Stelter’s program on CNN.

–NYT MEDIA COLUMNIST: Curious minds want to know — when will the Times name a successor to David Carr? Carr is irreplacable, of course, but there should be a successor. Since his death in February, all the air seems to have gone out of the Times’s Media vertical. They need to get their mojo back.

Muddy Waters mojo

–In separate posts, I am hoping to write soon about the NCAA, the new local evening news show on PBS in Boston, and what may have been the busiest news period in all human history. Stay tuned.

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New media outlet in New Hampshire

By Christopher B. Daly

Welcome to the news business to the latest wealthy businessman seeking to have a role in politics through the media. The newest member of the club is Bill Binnie, the founder of the media venture NH1, which is having its rollout this month in the state known as FITN for its “first in the nation” presidential primary, which is just around the corner in political terms.

Based on a quick search, it appears that Binnie is a Republican who made a fortune in plastics, which he converted into another fortune in the investing business. Born in Scotland, Binnie went to Harvard (on a scholarship, it should be noted) and to Harvard Business School, then did a stint at McKinsey as a consultant, telling other businesses how to run better. Eventually, he actually founded and ran several businesses of his own, including Carlisle Plastics, followed by a venture capital firm, Carlisle Capital Corp.

In 2010, he ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire and lost. He is a big donor to GOP causes and fund-raiser, and he has served as the chair of the finance committee for the N.H. GOP.

Now comes his latest venture: NH1, which debuts next week. Here is part of the Boston Globe‘s take, from today’s Capital section (which, BTW, is a welcome addition to the paper and potentially more meaningful to a lot of Globe readers than its much-heralded [if I may use that term!] new Catholic-watching section called Crux):

At a time when most newsrooms are shrinking, Binnie Media is doing the opposite, doubling staff to 120 in the past year and recruiting top journalists like former CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser and veteran political reporter Kevin Landrigan, who was laid off when The Telegraph of Nashua closed its New Hampshire State House bureau earlier this year. Binnie has also attracted a number of other seasoned journalists from cash-strapped local papers.

Hooray for hiring. It’s good to see someone taking up the slack from the diminished statehouse press corps. And Binnie could not have done better than to hire Kevin Landrigan — whose desk used to abut mine when we both worked in the Massachusetts Statehouse Press Gallery in the mid-1980s, he for the Lowell Sun and me for the AP. Kevin was simply the best reporter in the room (the Globe’s Frank Phillips was down the hall in a separate room, and John King didn’t stay long enough to build up Kevin’s cred). I learned a lot just from eavesdropping on Kevin’s phone conversations with his sources — not that I picked up any actual facts but I got to see his technique at work, which was relentless questioning, double-checking, and working his sources. He broke a lot of stories and always seemed to know what was about to happen next. I knew Kevin as decent, fair, straight-ahead, a total pro.

As for Binnie, he has actually been involved in TV and radio in New Hampshire for a few years, but he is taking another step forward in creating NH1, which is billed as a multimedia platform — which I guess means broadcast TV, plus a website (still under construction) but no print medium that I can see. The idea appears to be to capture some of the vast amounts of money spent in New Hampshire every four years on TV political ads.

Will NH1 survive through the lean off-years in politics?

Stay tuned.

Shiny! The Globe caption says: NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast. Photo by Boston Globe

Shiny!
The Globe caption says:
NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast.
Photo by Boston Globe

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A pox on “A pox on both their houses”

By Christopher B. Daly 

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.]

Shutterstock/ Christos Georghiou

Shutterstock/
Christos Georghiou

 

 

 

 

 

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Inside the meme factory: GOP discovers “imperial presidency”

By Christopher B. Daly

In today’s NYTimes, a story purports to have discovered a trend among Republican congressmen, who are depicted as suddenly deciding to accuse President Obama of creating an “imperial presidency.”

Hmmm. . .

Whenever Republicans start using the same phrase for the same purpose, it behooves political journalists to dig a little deeper and figure out where the new phrase/slogan/soundbite is coming from. Usually, it has been hatched deep in the bowels of the conservative “meme factory” — that set of interlocking think tanks, consultants, and media that serves the conservative movement by providing it with a constant supply of talking points, slogans, and rallying cries.

Today’s story, by Ashley Parker, traced the new “meme” as far upstream as a recent report from the office of Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House, but that’s as far as she got. I suspect there are more tributaries to explore, even further upstream.

An excerpt:

Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader, recently released an addendum to a 33-page report his office had already put out on the “imperial presidency.” And both Mr. Broun and Mr. Loudermilk used similar phrases when talking about the role they believe government should play.

“Our founding fathers truly believed that government should be a government of the people, by the people and for the people — not a government over the people,” Mr. Broun told a gathering of supporters recently.The day before, Mr. Loudermilk offered a nearly identical refrain: “This is a government that is of the people, not a government over the people,” he told supporters. “That’s the mentality that a lot of Washington has.”

The day before, Mr. Loudermilk offered a nearly identical refrain: “This is a government that is of the people, not a government over the people,” he told supporters. “That’s the mentality that a lot of Washington has.”

Imagine that — Loudermilk “offered a nearly identical refrain.” What a coincidence!

 

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Math for journalists (Koch edition): Free spending is not free speech

By Christopher B. Daly 

Kudos to The New Republic for this takedown of a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. The Murdoch newspaper was trying to gin up sympathy for the Koch brothers, the fossil-fuel billionaires who pour big money into the conservative Meme Factory and into political campaigns. The Journal tried to make the case that the Kochs have actually been outspent by organized labor — without noting that there are two Koch brothers and 14.5 million labor union members. When the Kochs are treated as individuals (as the Constitution would indicate), the TNR piece calculates that each Koch brother is exercising the same level of “political speech” as about half a million union members.

Can anyone really argue that amplifying those two voices by the millions of dollars they have to spend makes the country a better place? Does their wealth make their ideas more worth listening to? Does their wealth make them wiser? Does it mean they love their country more than others? Why should they have a megaphone that their neighbors do not have? If they want to speak, let them speak. If they want to publish, let them publish. And let them do so without limitation. But spending money is not protected by the First Amendment (and nor should it be).

As a First Amendment militant, I believe speech should be free. It shouldn’t be paid for.

[Note: the following graphic is merely suggestive. For it to be accurate, it would have to include hundreds of thousands of separate tiny images for union members.]

koch2-article

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