Sunday, September 3, 2023

Sunday Reading

America The Stupid — Brian Karem explains how we got here.  Hint: Ronald Reagan.

How screwed are we? I’ll tell you.

On Wednesday, the news was all about a big bag of wind destroying Florida and flooding the South, spreading destruction and threatening pestilence and death.

Then there’s Hurricane Idalia.

Also on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze and stood motionless in front of an assembly of reporters — for the second time this summer — so that’s encouraging.

But seriously, folks. Last Thursday, Donald Trump turned a 22-minute booking for a felony indictment in Georgia into a six-hour media special, complete with a larger motorcade than the actual president’s — with dozens of camera lights on the runway and a chopper-talk session.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden, the aforementioned actual president, quietly lent assistance to Hawaii after the devastating wildfires on Maui, for which he was criticized by Republican members of Congress. He also met with international leaders at the White House this week, and went after Big Pharma to negotiate reduced Medicare prices for 10 common prescription drugs.

The press? Well, we completely missed the point, as usual, and covered every juvenile tantrum Donald Trump threw in his malevolent attempt to stay in the news. The context is missing. The press is failing us, and people are too ignorant to notice the problem. That’s because we’re busy dividing ourselves into teams of social cheerleaders, cheering on our champions and literally booing the opposition.

Welcome to politics 2023. One man, who claims to support Christian values, continues his run for the highest office in the land based on revenge and hypocrisy, while our president, a devout Catholic, is insulted by the likes of Ted Cruz, accused of being anti-Catholic and “the face of corruption” in a post on X (formerly Twitter). Biden, in case anyone cares, goes to church every Sunday. Trump never went once in his four years at the White House. Rumor was it would burst into flames if he did.

It would be easy to claim that all of this is new. But that would also be wrong. The seeds of today’s political division and reporting began with Ronald Reagan.

While lying to the press, Reagan also set out to destroy it. He himself was quoted in the New York Times on Oct. 6, 1985, saying, “A substantial part of the political thing is acting and role playing and I know how to do that.”

Of course that’s literally all it is today.

What else is different?

Well, the press itself is different too. Reagan destroyed the FCC’s “fairness doctrine” and encouraged media consolidation. Decades later, as social media rose to take the place of the corporate media’s diminished role in providing vetted information, the slide accelerated.

People hiding behind anonymous handles rather than their actual names hurled insults and threats. Twitter offered “verified” names as a way to combat that — until Elon Musk took over and turned the verification process upside down, once again making anonymous insults and trolls fashionable.

Every tool used to legitimize and verify information in the last 40 years has evaporated under the push to make money. Fewer companies own most of the corporate media. Fewer independent news platforms exist — and they often get lumped in with bloggers and trolls.

The end result is chaos. Confusion.

That’s how America became stupid. Neil deGrasse Tyson, while trying to address how the U.S. is being left behind in areas such as physics, math and engineering (not to mention infrastructure) observed in a recent speech that “Science illiteracy is rampant in our culture.” When he addressed the problems of journalism, he pointed out a headline that read, “80 percent of airplane crash survivors had studied the locations of the exit doors on takeoff.”

As Tyson noted, there are quite a few things wrong with that headline, including this: Did they manage to interview those people who didn’t survive plane crashes? Another headline reported that half the schools in a certain district were “below average.” No kidding: That’s what “average” means. (OK, technically that would be the definition of ‘median,” but to insist on nuance now is pointless.)

Our inherent, vapid stupidity in the news business makes us sound more like characters in the 1970s novelty song”The Streak” than the diligent investigative reporters played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men.”

That’s right. We’re just as proud as we can be of our anatomy and we’re inviting public critique.

Too arcane? Try it this way: We don’t get it.

Donald Trump faces 91 felony charges in four different jurisdictions, brought by approximately 100 American citizens sitting on four different grand juries. This major play by the justice system is the last bid for accountability that I’ll see in my lifetime for Donald Trump, and by extension for those who hold power and are willing to break the law in order to keep it. If it fails, then, quite literally, God help us. There will be no holding the rich and the powerful accountable — for anything, ever.

Meanwhile, Trump himself is desperate. He smells of it as surely as a “Supernatural” demon smells of sulfur. Yet we continue to give him a thin veneer of credibility by allowing him to claim that a legitimate prosecution is political persecution.

Who cares what Donald Trump thinks?

When Charles Manson went on trial for orchestrating a series of gruesome murders, we did not dance on the head of a pin for his demons. Is Trump a lesser demon? No. If anything, he’s worse. His criminal activity has caused the suffering of millions, if not billions, across the planet and the fallout has only just begun.

We give his illegitimate political spawn, like Vivek Ramaswamy and Marjorie Taylor Greene, ample opportunity to propose bombing our allies for supplying drugs that millions of our citizens demand, while claiming climate change is a hoax. These minor demons are drafting off Trump while creating whole new lanes of lunacy.

In the corporate media, we keep fighting over competing inaccurate narratives while members of Congress contribute to the mayhem by “playing a role,” as Ronald Reagan put it 40 years ago.

The stupidity of the press is actually harder to decipher than the pandering of our politicians to constituents whom they view as fans of their fictional personas. Most of us are vaguely aware of the danger posed by Donald Trump. Some of us are acutely aware of it. But we’re also insecure and ignorant and not sure how to write or speak about him. If we simply call him a liar and a charlatan, we risk being called partisan. If we don’t show respect for “both sides,” then we are sullying our reputation — unless of course we are overtly partisan, and in that case we don’t care.

Either way, we flail about because of our inexperience. Everyone — even corporate news managers — say they wish we had more Walter Cronkites than Tucker Carlsons in the profession. You know, people with experience and common sense, rather than clowns chasing shadows.

The very same managers who wistfully wish for the “good old days” do not hire or promote people like Walter Cronkite, particularly not in television. The grizzled beat reporter with vast experience has been replaced by smiling, blissfully ignorant and much cheaper talking heads who can either entice or enrage an audience with their good looks while sounding knowledgeable. They definitely aren’t. We too have chased the Reagan model, and cover politics the same way politicians conduct their business: flash over substance.

You don’t have to look at political reporters. Just look at how we cover natural disasters, like the hurricane in Florida. How many times have you heard a reporter tell an anchor during a live shot, “Great question!” That’s usually a self-congratulatory comment, since the reporter has likely scripted the question for the anchor. The routine descriptions of all hurricanes, since I began covering them in the 1980s, includes cliché phrases like, “Never seen anything like this before” and “unparalleled destruction,” while the reporters wade through flood waters trying to look brave.

Please. TV reporters have covered hurricanes and major weather events the same way since Dan Rather waded into the flood waters while covering Hurricane Carla for KHOU in 1961. His stunt reporting eventually led to him replacing Cronkite as the anchor of “CBS Evening News.” Rather is revered today, but his contemporary peers often did not see him that way. He was a product of television, seen as a performer in his earlier years. He grew into his role and earned his stripes, but he was also the anchor who critics argue ushered in the new era of flash over substance. The fact that he’s so respected  today speaks not only to his growth as a reporter, but perhaps also to our lowered expectations of reporters.

But please: It’s all about the Barbie movie! Or the horse race of politics, or the polls.

We can report on numbers and fictional characters. They are simple and clean. People are not. Covering people takes a lot of experience, an ability to understand nuances of speech, actions and culture. We have none of that today — either among the press or among politicians.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said of Reagan that “he knows less than any president I’ve ever known.” The joke that circulated around D.C. during his presidency was that Reagan had tried to defect to the Soviet Union but was sent back because “he didn’t know anything.” As a performer playing Reagan in the off-Broadway show “Rap Master Ronnie” put it, “If you’re right 90 percent of the time, why quibble over the remaining three percent?”

John Wayne, a notorious conservative and longtime ally of Reagan’s, wrote him a blistering letter in 1977 telling Reagan to stop misinforming people about the Panama Canal treaty. “I’ll show you point by God damn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people. This is not my point of view against your point of view. These are facts,” Wayne wrote.

Reagan didn’t care. He played to the crowd he helped create, which has proliferated since he won the presidency in 1980. “You’d be surprised how much being a good actor pays off,” he told the Washington Post in 1984.

Now you understand how Donald Trump and his minions can spout limitless hypocrisy and get away with it. And you understand how the press, which was once able to accurately point out the lies and hypocrisy, today cannot.

“Floating down the stream of time,” George Harrison once told us “makes no difference where you are or where you’d like to be.”

Yes. It is all too much.

We are led by aging and frail men and women who should step aside, or by grifters who con their constituents because they don’t know or don’t care about anything better.

And all of this is being reported by indifferent, insecure, ignorant and incompetent journalists whose only goal is to fill time, gain ratings and pretend they know what they’re doing.

That’s how screwed we are.

The only consolation is that if the Justice Department remains sound, then Donald Trump will likely spend his remaining years behind bars, staring at himself in the mirror with no access to the outside world.

Doonesbury — Guess who?

Monday, August 14, 2023

Stopping The Presses

Via Balloon Juice, the story of a police raid on a newspaper in Kansas.

MARION — In an unprecedented raid Friday, local law enforcement seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the Marion County Record office, the newspaper’s reporters, and the publisher’s home.

Eric Meyer, owner and publisher of the newspaper, said police were motivated by a confidential source who leaked sensitive documents to the newspaper, and the message was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”

The city’s entire five-officer police force and two sheriff’s deputies took “everything we have,” Meyer said, and it wasn’t clear how the newspaper staff would take the weekly publication to press Tuesday night.

The raid followed news stories about a restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a meeting last week with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, and revelations about the restaurant owner’s lack of a driver’s license and conviction for drunken driving.

Meyer said he had never heard of police raiding a newspaper office during his 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal or 26 years teaching journalism at the University of Illinois.

“It’s going to have a chilling effect on us even tackling issues,” Meyer said, as well as “a chilling effect on people giving us information.”

The search warrant, signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, appears to violate federal law that provides protections against searching and seizing materials from journalists. The law requires law enforcement to subpoena materials instead. Viar didn’t respond to a request to comment for this story or explain why she would authorize a potentially illegal raid.

Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the police raid is unprecedented in Kansas.

“An attack on a newspaper office through an illegal search is not just an infringement on the rights of journalists but an assault on the very foundation of democracy and the public’s right to know,” Bradbury said. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”

Meyer reported last week that Marion restaurant owner Kari Newell had kicked newspaper staff out of a public forum with LaTurner, whose staff was apologetic. Newell responded to Meyer’s reporting with hostile comments on her personal Facebook page.

A confidential source contacted the newspaper, Meyer said, and provided evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license. The criminal record could jeopardize her efforts to obtain a liquor license for her catering business.

A reporter with the Marion Record used a state website to verify the information provided by the source. But Meyer suspected the source was relaying information from Newell’s husband, who had filed for divorce. Meyer decided not to publish a story about the information, and he alerted police to the situation.

“We thought we were being set up,” Meyer said.

Given that the Republicans are carrying on like banshees on meth about the non-existent violations of Trump’s First Amendment rights, this is both illegal and screamingly hypocritical.  And tragically, it was the cause of the death of the owner of the paper.

As Emily Bradbury said in the article, “This cannot be allowed to stand.”  But if we elect people like Trump and DeSantis, it will happen.  The only surprise is that it hasn’t already happened here in Florida.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Sunday Reading

Where Are They? — Toulouse Olorunnipa writes in the Washington Post that “No trusted figure has emerged to reassure the country in a shattering moment.”

In the hours after former president Donald Trump was indicted Tuesday, President Biden dined at a seafood restaurant, stopped by a movie theater to watch the summer blockbuster “Oppenheimer” and took a twilight stroll on the beach. He did not issue a statement on the indictment of his predecessor for allegedly seeking to overturn the last election.

America’s other living presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter — also stayed mum on the matter. Rushing into the void, partisan actors unleashed bitterly accusatory rhetoric that threatens to engulf both the court case and the presidential race.

The indictment’s aftermath has showcased how the country lacks a trusted singular voice of moral authority, one who could speak out on one of the most contentious and consequential judicial actions in political history: a former president charged with conspiring to undermine the nation’s democracy. If President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974 yielded the reassuring presence of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, moderate Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and — at least until he pardoned Nixon — incoming President Gerald Ford, this moment conspicuously lacks such a figure.

“There’s nobody that the public at large is willing to listen to, because the trust in government has corroded to such a low degree,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and author of a biography of Cronkite. “And the polling on journalists, the Supreme Court, Congress, the presidency — they’re all low. People aren’t admiring our public servants.”

For Biden, who was vacationing in Rehoboth Beach, Del., when the indictment was unveiled, the public reticence is part of a long-running strategy to insulate his White House from charges of political interference in sensitive investigations of his predecessor. Trump’s position as the Republican front-runner to challenge Biden in 2024 and the ongoing legal difficulties of Biden’s son Hunter have further restricted the president’s ability to speak out.

Biden and the White House have largely refused to comment as Trump has faced a trio of criminal indictments in multiple jurisdictions that focus on a range of activity before, during and after his presidency. But while Trump’s prior charges involved alleged hush money payments to an adult-film star and the alleged hoarding of classified documents, the latest charges allege a more fundamental crime against the nation’s democratic system — one that presidents are sworn to protect and expected to vocally defend.

As he seeks a second term, Biden, 80, has pitched himself as an experienced statesman working to restore the tenets of democracy after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by Trump supporters. Tuesday’s indictment — which includes charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and to deprive people of their right to have their vote counted — could provide fodder for Biden’s argument, but he has so far declined to make that case explicitly.

Biden’s aides say publicly commenting on Trump’s legal case could play into their opponents’ hands and undermine the principle of an independent justice system. At the same time, Trump has not hesitated to accuse Biden of engineering a political prosecution to skew the upcoming election.

“This is a persecution of a political opponent,” Trump said Thursday after appearing in court to plead not guilty. “If you can’t beat him, you persecute him or you prosecute him. We can’t let this happen in America.”

Trump has long claimed to be the victim of persecution by a growing list of alleged saboteurs, including journalists, prosecutors, judges, military leaders, intelligence officials, former presidents and government bureaucrats — drawing once nonpartisan figures into the political fray. Amid the partisan squabbling over his latest indictment, no other national figures have been able to speak to the moment with a sense of gravitas that might be broadly accepted across political battle lines.

While history is full of examples of deep ideological divisions, today’s battles lack a sense of “loser’s grace” in which both sides agree to accept the outcome and move on, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

“What is distinctive today is not, essentially, that we don’t have a common national figure both sides can turn to,” Riley said. “The system wasn’t built to require a Walter Cronkite to pronounce from on high that something is profoundly wrong. It was constructed on the premise that losers would accept the expressed will of the people. That’s the responsibility of a loser. And when it is not exercised, the system wobbles.”

Special counsel Jack Smith made a similar argument when he unveiled his 45-page indictment Tuesday, calling out Trump for inspiring the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the democratic principles it represents.

Trump’s strategy of denigrating Smith and the broader justice system — with the implicit goal of effectively putting his case before voters rather than jurors — increases the likelihood that the 2024 race will be dominated by debates over the status of the nation’s democracy, Brinkley said.

Elected officials, military brass and religious leaders are among the figures who have been viewed as authoritative voices capable of calming or rallying the populace during crucial moments in U.S. history, reassuring the nation that its principles hold fast.

Presidents themselves have often been called on to be the moral voice of the nation, appealing to its better angels at times of great tumult, tragedy or threat. As the country faced the throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his “fireside chats” to reassure Americans and galvanize the country around a strategy for revival.

After the nation watched the violence of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress and sent an unequivocal message by adopting the mantra of civil rights protesters: “We shall overcome.”

Bush — whose own razor-thin 2000 election victory was ultimately accepted by Vice President Al Gore during a time of national angst — had to lead the country through tragedy less than a year later after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I can hear you,” he said through a bullhorn as his stood amid the wreckage in New York three days after the attack. “The rest of the world hears you … And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

All of those presidents enjoyed bipartisan popularity at a level that may no longer be possible. Even Obama, who governed at a more divided moment but whose voice was often sought out during times of racial strife, struck a chord with many when he sang part of “Amazing Grace” to commemorate the lives of nine Black parishioners slain by a white supremacist in 2015.

Technological advancements have altered the landscape significantly. Then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy gave a powerful address to a largely Black crowd in 1968 several hours after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and the news had not yet reached many of the people in the audience. Today, by the time a president or other leader can arrange to stand in front of a microphone, millions of Americans have already not only digested the news but formed opinions based on the media prism through which they consumed the information.

National institutions that were once at least somewhat removed from the vagaries of rank partisanship — including the military, the Supreme Court and the scientific community — have now been thrust deep into the nation’s culture wars. Public opinion polling shows a decline in broad support and trust in all three.

The media have been especially susceptible to the public’s declining sense of trust. Viewers in the aftermath of Trump’s indictment flocked to MSNBC or Fox News, receiving completely different depictions of what had just occurred.

“This is political germ warfare,” Fox News host Jesse Watters, whose prime-time show is often the nation’s most-watched cable news program, told viewers Tuesday. “These are political war crimes. It’s an atrocity. It’s like not just dropping one atomic bomb, you drop 15 dozen.”

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, in contrast, echoed the disbelief of many liberals that a figure like Trump gained power in the first place. “If the allegations made by the Justice Department in this indictment are proven, history will not ask how we got to the point where they had to indict a former president,” she said. “History will ask, ‘How did a person like this get elected to the U.S. presidency?’”

The bifurcated media environment has helped Trump maintain a robust level of support among Republicans even as he has faced three indictments in four months, Brinkley said.

“When Walter Cronkite left in 1981, you lost a referee on public affairs,” he said. “And with the advent of cable and the internet and social media, it’s completely balkanized. Now, everybody is a consumer of the media they want.”

Unlike Nixon, who was forced to resign and bow out of politics when it became clear that leaders within his own party had turned against him over the Watergate scandal, Trump has seen his standing among Republicans grow along with his rap sheet.

While a few former Republican allies have spoken out against him in the wake of the new charges — including former vice president Mike Pence, former attorney general William P. Barr and former national security adviser John Bolton — they have found themselves largely isolated as the GOP has coalesced behind Trump.

Hunter Biden’s legal predicament has also come into play as the president has opted to stay quiet about Trump’s charges. Congressional Republicans have spent much of the past year investigating Hunter Biden, recently touting testimony by a business partner who alleged that the younger Biden used his relationship with his father as he was pursuing international business deals.

Trump’s legal and political advocates have seized on that to paint the administration, the Democratic Party and the justice system as corrupt, saying without evidence that they are targeting Trump while protecting Hunter Biden.

“President Trump is under siege in a way that we have never seen before,” Trump lawyer Alina Habba told reporters Thursday outside the federal courthouse in Washington, accusing the Biden administration of engaging in “election interference.”

In the days since Trump’s indictment, Biden has declined to address such allegations.

Riding his bike for the fourth day in a row Thursday, Biden ignored reporters’ inquiries about Trump’s indictment and answered brusquely when asked if he’d consider pausing to answer their questions: “Probably not,” he said, riding by with a wave.

That afternoon, as the political world focused on Trump’s appearance in court, Biden was holed up at his beach house. At 1:54 p.m., reporters were advised that he would have no other public activities for the day.

Doonesbury — Check your calendar.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Sunday Reading

Danger: Slippery Slope Ahead — The New York Times on Florida’s attempts to gut the First Amendment.  It could happen everywhere.

A homeowner gets angry at a county commission over a zoning dispute and writes a Facebook post accusing a local buildings official of being in the pocket of developers.

A right-wing broadcaster criticizing border policies accuses the secretary of homeland security of being a traitor.

A parent upset about the removal of a gay-themed book from library shelves goes to a school board meeting and calls the board chair a bigot and a homophobe.

All three are examples of Americans engaging in clamorous but perfectly legal speech about public figures that is broadly protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, in a case that dates back nearly 60 years, ruled that even if that speech might be damaging or include errors, it should generally be protected against claims of libel and slander. All three would lose that protection — and be subject to ruinous defamation lawsuits — under a bill that is moving through the Florida House and is based on longstanding goals of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The bill represents a dangerous threat to free expression in the United States, not only for the news media, but for all Americans, whatever their political beliefs. There’s still time for Florida lawmakers to reject this crude pandering and ensure that their constituents retain the right to free speech.

“This isn’t just a press issue,” said Bobby Block, executive director of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. “This is a death-to-public-discourse bill. Everyone, even conservatives, would have to second-guess themselves whenever they open their mouths to speak or sit in front of a keyboard.”

The bill is an explicit effort to eviscerate a 1964 Supreme Court decision, The New York Times Company v. Sullivan. This bulwark of First Amendment law requires public figures to prove a news organization engaged in what the court called “actual malice” to win a defamation case. By preventing lawsuits based on unintentional mistakes, the decision freed news organizations to pursue vigorous reporting about public officials without fear of paying damages. The decision has even been applied by lower courts to bloggers and other speakers who make allegations about public figures.

Many conservatives, including Mr. DeSantis, have long chafed at the freedom that this decision gives to a news industry they consider to be too liberal. The new bill embodies that antagonism. It would sharply limit the definition of public figures, eliminating public employees like police officers from the category, even if they become public figures because of their actions.

It would change the definition of actual malice to include any allegation that is “inherently improbable” — an impossibly vague standard — or that is based on what it calls an “unverified” statement by an anonymous source. In fact, it says that all anonymous statements, a crucial tool for investigative reporting, are “presumptively false” for the purposes of a defamation case. Anonymous sources were the basis for much of The Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate and The Times’s exposure of the Bush administration’s domestic eavesdropping program in 2005, among many other examples of journalism with significant impact.

Under the bill, a public figure would no longer need to show actual malice to win a defamation case if the allegation against the figure wasn’t related to the reason for the person’s public status. So if a person is publicly known for being elected president or governor, and a news organization publishes an investigation about that person’s private or business life unrelated to elected office, that report would not get the special liability protection provided by the Sullivan decision.

The bill goes much further than this attempt to hobble the press. It makes it clear that the new defamation rules would also apply to any single “utterance on the internet,” which could mean a tweet or a Facebook post written by anyone, or “any one presentation to an audience,” which could include statements made at school board hearings and other public meetings.

In a direct attack on a key aspect of free expression, it says that whenever someone is accused of discriminating against others on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, that accusation is automatically considered enough to sue for defamation. Any person accused of bigotry based on sexual orientation or gender identity could file a defamation lawsuit and be virtually guaranteed of winning by saying the discrimination was based on personal religious or scientific beliefs. The penalty for calling someone a bigot would be a minimum of $35,000.

Mr. DeSantis, who appears to be preparing for a 2024 presidential campaign, has been railing against press freedoms for several years in a clear appeal to likely Republican primary voters. The bill was recently introduced in the Florida House by one of his allies and has a strong chance of passage; a similar if slightly milder version was filed in the State Senate.

If enacted, the House bill would almost instantly be challenged in court, but its backers are counting on that. In public statements, they have said they want the bill to be used as a vehicle to get the Supreme Court to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan and have noted that two justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have called on the court to reconsider that decision. The current court has repeatedly demonstrated that it can’t be counted on to respect long-term precedents that are widely supported by the public.

There may be room for discussion on the precise definition of “public figure,” which has been interpreted in various ways by the Supreme Court and lower courts over the past six decades. Even Justice Elena Kagan, in a 1993 journal article long before she joined the court, expressed interest in determining whether the term had been too broadly defined in the years after Sullivan, though she applauded the overall decision.

A sledgehammer bill like the one in Florida, however, wielded for transparent political reasons, would create enormous damage on the way to the high court, particularly if other states decide to copy its language. In 1964, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who wrote the court’s opinion, said it was based on “the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open.” That may well include, he wrote, “vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” That principle has not changed through the decades, and any citizen who treasures the right to speak freely should resist politicians like Mr. DeSantis who want to silence them.

Doonesbury — Still plotting revenge.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Oh Hell No

Yet another blow for liberty from the Free State of Florida.

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Lake Mary) wants bloggers who write about Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and other members of the Florida executive cabinet or legislature to register with the state or face fines.

Brodeur’s proposal, Senate Bill 1316: Information Dissemination, would require any blogger writing about government officials to register with the Florida Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics.

In the bill, Brodeur wrote that those who write “an article, a story, or a series of stories,” about “the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, a Cabinet officer, or any member of the Legislature,” and receives or will receive payment for doing so, must register with state offices within five days after the publication of an article that mentions an elected state official.

If another blog post is added to a blog, the blogger would then be required to submit monthly reports on the 10th of each month with the appropriate state office. They would not have to submit a report on months when no content is published.

For blog posts that “concern an elected member of the legislature” or “an officer of the executive branch,” monthly reports must disclose the amount of compensation received for the coverage, rounded to the nearest $10 value.

If compensation is paid for a series of posts or for a specific amount of time, the blogger would be required to disclose the total amount to be received, upon publication of the first post in said series or timeframe.

Additional compensation must be disclosed later on.

Failure to file these disclosures or register with state officials, if the bill passes, would lead to daily fines for the bloggers, with a maximum amount per report, not per writer, of $2,500. The per-day fine is $25 per report for each day it’s late.

The bill also requires that bloggers file notices of failure to file a timely report the same way that lobbyists file their disclosures and reports on assessed fines. Fines must be paid within 30 days of payment notice, unless an appeal is filed with the appropriate office. Fine payments must be deposited into the Legislative Lobbyist Registration Trust Fund if it concerns an elected member of the legislature.

For writing about members of the executive branch, fines would be made payable to the Executive Branch Lobby Registration Trust Fund or, if it concerns both groups, the fine may be paid to both related trust funds in equal amounts.

Explicitly, the blogger rule would not apply to newspapers or similar publications, under Brodeur’s proposed legislation.

The first thing a dictator does is try to control the press.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

How Wrong They Were

The MAGAistas carry on about how corrupt the “lamestream” media is, claiming that they are in the libtards’ camp and lying about everything that shows them in a bad light.  They also claim that the press has too much power and that’s why Republicans didn’t sweep the mid-terms.

If only.  The Very Serious Pundits and their chin-stroking ruminations are reliably unreliable, and if they didn’t get paid every time they got it wrong, they’d be selling apples on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard.

Dana Milbank:

We don’t yet know precisely who won the 2022 midterms, but we certainly know who lost.

I’m sorry to say that my colleagues in the political press blew it.

The headlines coming into Tuesday’s elections almost uniformly predicted a Democratic wipeout. Here’s just a small sampling:

The bottom is dropping out of the 2022 election for Democrats

Democrats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House

Red tsunami watch

The Republican wave is building fast

Democrats fear midterm drubbing as party leaders rush to defend blue seats

Why the midterms are going to be great for Donald Trump

Breaking down the GOP’s midterm momentum

Democrats confront their nightmare scenario on election eve as economic concerns overshadow abortion and democracy worries

I pulled those from The Post, the New York Times, CNN, Axios and Politico — but the rest of the news media called it much the same.

I was baffled. What were they seeing that I and, more important, the Democratic operatives I spoke to weren’t seeing? Back in mid-August, I wrote a column titled “Why that red wave might end up a ripple.” I noted that Democrats had pulled even on the “generic ballot” — which party voters prefer for Congress — at a time in the cycle when the incumbent president’s party is almost always losing ground. Democrats’ standing receded slightly since then, but the contests remained extremely tight. The races were stable, both in public polling and in the private polling I had seen.

So what happened? Political journalists were suckered by a wave of Republican junk polls in the closing weeks of the campaign. They were also swayed by some reputable polling organizations that, burned by past failures to capture MAGA voters, overweighted their polls to account for that in ways that simply didn’t make sense. And reporters fell for Republican feints and misdirection, as Republican operatives successfully created an artificial sense of momentum by talking about how they were spending money in reliably blue areas.

An extraordinary profusion of bad partisan polling flooded the media late in the campaign, coming from GOP outfits such as Trafalgar (which had Blake Masters over Mark Kelly in the Arizona Senate race, Don Bolduc over Maggie Hassan in the New Hampshire Senate race, among others) and Rasmussen (which gave Republicans a five point edge in the generic ballot).

It was telling that Republican campaigns didn’t release their own polls to confirm the dubious results Trafalgar and Rasmussen were producing. Still, such polling helped skew handicapping websites. RealClearPolitics, for example, moved Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) into “toss-up” status in the closing days of his reelection bid. Bennet beat his Republican opponent by double digits.

A couple of reputable polls also came up with some suspicious conclusions. Three weeks ago, a New York Times-Siena College poll caused a news media sensation when it found Republicans with a four point advantage in the generic ballot. (A Monmouth University poll found a similar GOP advantage.) But the Siena poll showed that women were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, at 47-47. Had the gender gap disappeared entirely for the first time in modern history? Or was there something screwy with the weighting?

Even though early voting figures were astronomical, Gallup asserted days before the election that “Americans are also markedly less enthusiastic about voting in this year’s elections than they were in 2018.” (The 2022 turnout was exceptionally high.) Gallup also predicted that the “political environment … should work to the benefit of the Republican Party.”

The news media took the faulty assumption that Republicans would enjoy a red wave and plugged in explanations for the imagined outcome. Democrats blew it because they spoke too much about abortion and democracy, and too little about the economy and crime. (In fact, crime and the economy figured prominently in many Democratic campaigns.)

“Did Democrats place a losing bet on abortion?” CNN asked.

Fox News trumpeted: “Biden ridiculed for ‘despicable’ speech on ‘threat’ to democracy: ‘What delusion looks like.’ ”

Many outlets asserted that “Democrats are losing Latino voters,” as NPR put it.

And some Democrats started a premature circular firing squad, providing the media with quotes to justify the false narratives. “I think we’re going to have a bad night,” Hilary Rosen said Sunday on CNN. “When voters tell you over and over again that they care mostly about the economy, listen to them. Stop talking about democracy being at stake.”

The day before the election, Bloomberg News went with this headline: “Inflation-Focused Voters Defy Biden’s Bid to Change the Subject.”

On Wednesday morning, that same writer tweeted a bit of a corrective: “Biden, despite his low approval rating and relative absence on the campaign trail, will likely be able to claim best midterm performance for an incumbent president’s party in 20 years.”

The message to the press: Do your job.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Busy Day

There’s a lot going on.

  • The last day of the Supreme Court term with a couple of major decisions due, along with the possible retirement of Justice Breyer.
  • Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, has died.
  • Bill Cosby’s conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and he’s been released.
  • The Trump Organization and its top executive will be indicted for tax fraud today.
  • A Federal court has blocked Florida’s new law that penalizes social media companies from blocking politicians.
  • It’s still really hot.

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday Reading

Better Press Conferences, Please — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker on the vapidity of the presidential press conference.

Sometimes the big moments in our politics meet the very low expectations we have for them. Joe Biden’s first Presidential press conference, on Thursday, was one of them. By the end of it, after an hour and two minutes that felt much longer, Biden had answered some two dozen questions. The majority of them were repetitive variants on one of two subjects: immigration and the Senate filibuster.

Biden had no actual news to offer on either subject. In case you missed it, he is really, totally, absolutely committed to fixing the terrible situation at the border, and also not yet ready—because he does not have the votes—to commit to blowing up the filibuster. There was not a single question, meanwhile, about the ongoing pandemic that for the past year has convulsed life as we know it and continues to claim an average of a thousand lives a day. How is this even possible during a once-in-a-century public-health crisis, the combating of which was the central theme of Biden’s campaign and remains the central promise of his Presidency? It’s hard not to see it as anything other than an epic and utterly avoidable press fail.

For weeks, Washington clamored for a Biden press conference. This was, after all, the longest a new President had gone without holding one since the Coolidge Administration. Republicans—and the state-run media in Russia—seized on Biden’s reticence as proof that he was somehow too old or incoherent to face the rigors of extended, unscripted questioning. With his critics having set such a low bar, it should surprise no one that Biden, who did, after all, win a national election by surviving almost a dozen debates with his Democratic-primary rivals and two with Donald Trump, cleared it. Republicans, it could be said, succeeded in one respect with their preshow spin: they wanted Biden to be on the defensive talking about immigration and the border, not the passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package and the success of his vaccine campaign. Reporters, based on the questions, agreed.

Sixty-five days into Biden’s tenure, there was plenty to ask him about, even in the absence of the Trump-manufactured dramas that fuelled the news in the past few years: horrific mass shootings, escalating tensions with China and Russia, missile tests by North Korea, and, oh, yes, the pandemic. The killings in Georgia and Colorado over the past week forced Biden to cancel part of his carefully planned “help is here” tour to tout the COVID-relief package—a reminder that, no matter how disciplined and organized his Administration is, no matter the contrast to Trumpian chaos, all leaders fall prey to the press of urgent and unanticipated crises. Biden opened the press conference by announcing a new plan to administer two hundred million vaccines by his hundredth day in office and a vow to get a majority of elementary and middle schools open by then. But that is where the big story of his Administration began and ended—as far as the journalists were concerned.

Biden’s policies on the pandemic have been popular with the public, including with Republican voters, but there are plenty of tough questions to be asked about them, given the huge uncertainties of when and how we are going to get out of the COVID mess. Instead, the press conference quickly reminded me why I never liked them much. What did we learn? That Biden agrees with Barack Obama that the Senate filibuster is a “relic of the Jim Crow era” but is not yet committing to a full-out attack against it. That he has not yet decided whether to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set by his predecessor. That he will “consult with allies” about the North Korean missile tests. That he plans to run for reëlection in 2024 but might not because, hey, it’s a long time from now and who knows if there will even be a Republican Party by then. His strongest words were reserved for the current Republican campaign in numerous states to restrict voting rights—which the President called “un-American” and “sick.” The funniest moment by far was when he was asked whether he would run in 2024, given that Trump had already announced he was doing so by this early point in his tenure. “My predecessor?” Biden said, and then he laughed. It was a short, derisive laugh. “Oh, God, I miss him,” he said.

Although Biden refused to endorse the effort by progressives to get rid of the Senate filibuster, he eventually seemed to lose enough patience with the press conference that he engaged in a little filibustering of his own. Late into the hour, I found myself tuning out a bit when Biden gave a long lecture on the twenty-first-century battle between autocracies and democracies. During his answer, I noticed that Zeke Miller, the Associated Press correspondent who had been given the first question at the press conference, was tweeting from inside the press room—about a different subject entirely, the Israeli elections. (In another rarity, Israel and the Mideast also did not come up at the press conference, I should note; perhaps American foreign policy is finally pivoting, after all?) Meanwhile, Biden had begun another stem-winder, on infrastructure. “There’s so much we can do that’s good stuff,” the President said. This, by the way, was in response to a question about gun control that he did not really answer. It’s not for nothing that Biden served for all those decades in the Senate.

I have spent years, as an editor and a reporter, hating on Presidential press conferences—the faux-gotcha questions, the pointless preening, the carefully calculated one-liners from the President made to seem like spontaneous witticisms. Print reporters like me are biased toward scoops and original reporting; we tend to dislike events that are staged for the cameras, featuring journalists as props.

Then came Donald Trump, and an entire Presidential term of watching press conferences with a renewed sense of urgency. No matter how hard they were to sit through, they were undoubtedly relevant: Trump regularly used them not only as a platform for his lies and cartoonish demagoguery but also for unexpected policy pronouncements that had significant real-world consequences. Trump’s performances required watching because his Presidency defied the norms of governance; he was the only one who could speak for his Administration of one, and thus we had no choice but to pay attention.

That was then. Today, no one watches a Biden press conference worrying that he is about to suggest that Americans drink bleach to cure their COVID or that he will declare war on Michigan because its governor wasn’t appreciative enough. Wondering whether Biden, a famously long-winded seventy-eight-year-old former senator, will stumble over an answer does not have the same consequences as watching a Presidential press conference to find out whether Trump is still threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea. This is an improvement, to be sure. But politics moves on, and, in this case, Trump’s exit from the White House means that we journalists have the space and time to consider once again the problem of how to insist on transparency and accountability in our government without relying so heavily on the empty spectacle of the televised Presidential press conference, a platform that arguably had its heyday in the early nineteen-sixties.

I am, of course, all for asking Biden hard, tough, and pointed questions—the more the better. But Thursday’s press conference reminded me of why I hated these staged events in the first place. It taught me nothing about Joe Biden, his Presidency, or his priorities. The problem was not that it was boring. It was that it was bad.

Rough Waters in Key West — Richard Morin in the Washington Post on the battle between the capital of the Conch Republic and the cruise ships.

It was another balmy day in paradise when Key West, Fla., voters decided they’d had enough of the thousands of here-today, gone-tonight tourists who regularly pour from giant cruise ships onto the streets of their iconic city.

By decisive, even overwhelming margins, the voters approved ballot measures to immediately slash the number of passengers who can disembark daily as well as ban the biggest ships. But several months later, in an end-around that has incensed locals, the cruise industry is fighting back. Two state lawmakers with broad industry backing are pushing bills to nullify the vote and prohibit Key West from regulating such activity in its own port.

“I am so furious that I can hardly see straight,” said Kate Miano, owner of the luxe Gardens Hotel, where century-old brick walkways wind past orchid-festooned trees. “We battled the big cruise ship companies, and now they’re taking away my vote? I can’t understand how they can possibly do that.”

Yes, they can, say legislators now meeting in Tallahassee. And there’s a good chance they will soon succeed.

“We can’t simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the port of Key West and holding the state of Florida hostage,” Rep. Spencer Roach (R) said at a hearing this month, his number referring to the total votes cast in support of the three city charter changes.

The maneuvering in the state Capitol has at times been both blatant and blundering, marked by dueling statistics, charges of betrayal, threats of retribution and alternating predictions of economic or environmental doom. It has fueled editorial outrage in newspapers statewide — with Roach, one of the bills’ sponsors, accused with other Republicans of trampling on democracy.

Before the coronavirus pandemic idled fleets globally, cruise tourism in Key West had grown from a single ship that docked monthly in 1969 to a $73 million-a-year business. By 2018, more than a million passengers were arriving annually in ever-larger vessels that resembled floating communities; the biggest measured more than three football fields in length and carried more than 4,000 passengers and crew.

Collectively, it all had quite an impact on this island community of 25,000, a place made famous by the literary likes of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Wallace Stevens.

On streets where art galleries, fine restaurants and specialty shops once flourished, vendors hawk bawdy T-shirts and stores advertise “Everything inside $5.” Part of downtown’s historic Duval Street, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, is now a shopping pit that caters to the swarms of day-trippers, in Miano’s view.

“The lower end of Duval is crap,” she said.

The cultural transformation has been accompanied by environmental changes offshore. Fragile coral reefs have been threatened by the mile-long silt trails churned up as the megaships approach and depart. The vessels also roil the bottom of the six-mile channel to the port, damaging habitat and disrupting migration patterns of game fish. Local fishing guides say they were the first to sound the alarm.

“We saw it beginning maybe 15 years ago,” said Will Benson, a Key West native whose clients pay him $700 a day to chase bonefish, tarpon and permit in the shallow inshore waters. He’s seeing fewer fish, and those he finds have become more skittish, less likely to bite. Some have left their usual haunts.

The November vote limited the total number of cruise-ship tourists allowed to come ashore every day to 1,500 — fewer than half the daily average in February 2020. It also closed the port to ships with more than 1,300 passengers and crew — about half the size of most ships that docked before the pandemic. The final charter change gave docking priority to ships with the best environmental and health records.

Industry officials contend the result ultimately will cripple cruise tourism in Key West and endanger hundreds of local jobs that depend on the big ships. The city’s coffers will take a big hit, they predict. Cruise-related taxes brought in $21 million in 2018.

The new rules will be “the destruction of the port as we know it,” said John E. Wells, another native and chief executive of Caribe Nautical Services. His firm is the agent for every cruise ship that docks in Key West. “We have 287 port calls scheduled for 2022,” ships often making a stop as they loop through the Caribbean. “Only 18 will meet the size criteria.”

The Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, the local group fighting the state legislation, scoffs at those claims. Key West will do just fine without the megaships, said treasurer Arlo Haskell, a writer and poet. Citing the industry’s own figures, he pegs cruise revenue at about 7 percent of all tourist spending in Key West in a normal year. Ships will continue to dock, he notes, although only the smaller ones.

“The goal is to make Key West the premier small-ship destination,” Haskell said, while holding onto the overnight and extended-stay tourists who are the backbone of the city’s tourist trade, the ones filling hotels, B&Bs and restaurants.

To Wells, opponents’ arguments carry a whiff of elitism. The smaller ships cater to a moneyed crowd; the big ships bring the cost of a cruise within reach of middle-income and working-class people.

“I call it economic discrimination,” he said. “That’s not what Key West is about.”

He and others say seaport traffic benefits areas far from port communities and should be governed by the state or federal government. They would prefer one set of port regulations “instead of a patchwork of conflicting restrictions in each municipality,” according to a statement by the powerful Cruise Lines International Association.

The initial bills in Tallahassee indeed covered all 15 Florida seaports. They were greeted with vehement protest from legislators loath to see cities in their districts lose control of their ports.

So amendments were tacked on that only prohibited cities from restricting cruise ships in their ports, excluding those ports controlled by a county or port authority. That left only Key West, Panama City, Pensacola and St. Petersburg subject to the proposed prohibitions. Of those four, only Key West is a cruise-ship destination. (The state constitution prohibits bills that target a single municipality, hence the need to create a “class” of city-controlled ports.)

Lawmakers may not be finished trying to punish Key West for its November vote. In a recent tweet, Roach urged his colleagues to oppose giving federal stimulus money to ports that ban cruise ships. “Yep, looking at you city of Key West,” he wrote.

The amended bills sailed through subcommittees. One anticipated hurdle fell several weeks ago when a Republican senator whose district includes Key West unexpectedly withdrew an amendment to exempt the city for environmental reasons. She provided no explanation.

The final legislation is expected to be delivered to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in the next few weeks.

DeSantis, mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender in 2024, is the wild card in this game. While a prominent ally of Donald Trump and a pro-business conservative, he has embraced several issues dear to Florida environmentalists, including restoration of the Everglades. So far, the governor has not tipped his hand.

It’s been more than a year since cruise ships have docked in Key West. Locals say the offshore waters are cleaner and downtown streets less mobbed. Tourist-tax collections haven’t cratered, and Miano says business at her hotel is better than ever.

Even the fish seem friendlier, Benson says. “They are more relaxed, and the bite lasts longer.”

Doonesbury — Party preference.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sunday Reading

Like Drinking From A Fire Hose — Margaret Sullivan on fact-checking Trump.

Daniel Dale met President Trump’s convention speech with a tirade of truth Thursday night — a tour de force of fact-checking that left CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looking slightly stunned.

The cable network’s resident fact-checker motored through at least 21 falsehoods and misstatements he had found in Trump’s 70-minute speech, breathlessly debunking them at such a pace that when he finished, Cooper, looking bemused, paused for a moment and then deadpanned, “Oh, that’s it?”

So, so much was simply wrong. Claims about the border wall, about drug prices, about unemployment, about his response to the pandemic, about rival Joe Biden’s supposed desire to defund the police (which Biden has said he opposes).

Dale is a national treasure, imported last year from the Toronto Star, where he won accolades for bravely tackling the Sisyphean task of fact-checking Trump. My skilled colleagues of The Washington Post Fact-Checker team, who recently published a whole book on the president’s lies, have similarly done their best to hold back the tide of Trumpian falsehoods.

Dozens of organizations, from Snopes.com to FactCheck.org and many others, are kept busy chasing political lies, so many of which come from the current White House. But here’s the rub. More than a decade after the innovative Florida-based fact-checking organization Politifact.org won a Pulitzer Prize, fact-checking may make less of a difference than ever.

More and more, fact-checkers seem to be trying to bail out an ancient, rusty and sinking freighter with the energetic use of measuring cups and thimbles.

“My biggest takeaway of the last four years is probably realizing the extent to which big chunks of America are living in a different universe of news/facts with basically no shared reality,” was how Charlie Warzel, who writes about the information wars for the New York Times put it last week.

I happened to be sitting in the WAMU studio in late 2016 when Scottie Nell Hughes — then a frequent surrogate for President-elect Donald Trump and a paid commentator for CNN during the 2016 campaign — said something startling, live on the Diane Rehm radio show: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, (as) facts.”

Rehm had pressed her about Trump’s false assertion that he, not Hillary Clinton, would have won the popular vote if millions of immigrants had not voted illegally. That was a claim he seemingly had heard on Infowars — the conspiracy-theory-crazed site run by Alex Jones, who at one time claimed that the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six staff members at an Connecticut elementary school was a government-sponsored hoax.

Hughes gave not an inch of ground: Trump’s false claims, she insisted, “amongst a certain crowd . . . a large part of the population, are truth.”

Belief, therefore, takes the place of fact.

The situation has only become worse since then. And as scholars have observed, calling out falsehoods forcefully may actually cause people to hold tighter to their beliefs.

That’s the “backfire effect” that academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler wrote about in their study “When Corrections Fail” about the persistence of political misperceptions: “Direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs.”

Not knowing what media sources to believe — and the growing mistrust in the press among many segments of the public — has added to the problem of politicians who lie.

Last week, I was asked to settle a family dispute about the believability of a news report that had been circulating on a group text-message chain.

One family member (I’m being vague since I hope to continue to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner) was outraged by the supposed revelations in a Newsweek article whose headline read “Brand New Mail Sorting Machine Thrown Out at USPS Center, Leaving Workers Sorting by Hand.”

Another family member had serious doubts about whether this was true. He dismissed it as “hearsay.”

And a third asked me to take a look: Would I have published the article?

It didn’t take me long to decide it wasn’t credible or publication-worthy. Newsweek, despite its legacy name, is suspect from the start these days. The article’s sourcing was thin. And a hyperlink, its main piece of evidence, led me to a local news site that already corrected the main element of its story. (Days later, Newsweek still hadn’t updated its story.)

These family members care about the facts, and were engaged enough to be curious about whether a report is accurate. And while it may have suited their politics better if it were true, they were open to hearing that it wasn’t.

But most people don’t have the time or energy to do research projects on the news they are reading, or the claims they are hearing from the White House, or the conspiracy theories that flood their Facebook feeds.

Most people no longer share with their fellow citizens the trust in news organizations — or in political actors — that would give them confidence in a shared basis of reality. And worst of all, the flow of disinformation on social media is both vile and unstoppable.

In this world, challenging official lies and seeking truth remains necessary, even essential. The yeoman’s work of Daniel Dale, and others like him, remains appreciated.

But I’m with Warzel on this: As Americans, we’re in trouble when it comes to a common ground of reality on which to stand.

And no amount of fact-checking is going to solve that overwhelming problem.

An Appreciation of Chadwick Boseman — Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

In an era that prizes and praises actors’ conspicuous exertion (like Joaquin Phoenix, in “Joker,” and Leonardo DiCaprio, in “The Revenant”), Chadwick Boseman never wrestled the bear, never turned acting into stunt work for the sheer self-congratulatory pride in effort. He also, at a time when technical skill is venerated, never flaunted his own formidable acting technique. Boseman, who died on Friday, at the age of forty-three, never won an Oscar—was never even nominated. True, he had only a handful of leading roles, but he won overwhelming and justified acclaim for each of them. Yet he didn’t sufficiently impress his award-granting peers in the industry, perhaps because his style of acting set him apart from—and in crucial ways, above—the customs, habits, and conventions of the profession.

Boseman’s talent had never been in doubt; what had largely gone unrecognized was his originality. His breakthrough came in that most accursed of genres, the bio-pic, in “42,” which was released in 2013, when he was thirty-six years old. There, alongside the enormous historical responsibility that the role of Jackie Robinson (the first Black player in major-league baseball) imposed, Boseman had a hard script to contend with. It’s a movie written and directed with 20/20 hindsight regarding progress in American race relations. Boseman’s solution to the dramatic and technical problem of conveying Robinson’s supremely controlled bearing and the passion that roiled beneath it was to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of bio-pic performances: he neither reinvents the role to fit his own art (as do some other notables who’ve won Oscars for performances in the genre) nor does he impersonate the character of Robinson with sheer virtuosity. Rather, Boseman incarnates Robinson, catches an element of physical bearing that comes not from imitation but identification, from a profound empathy that goes beneath the skin and seemingly takes on not merely the character’s actions and experiences but also the subconscious, the automatic aspect.

That sense of lived-in spontaneity born of imagination is both the source of Boseman’s profound art and the reason that he had not been hailed as other actors have been. His method puts his own bearing severely to the test, and that bearing is supremely graceful: he makes the extreme difficulty of embodying Robinson (and, then, James Brown, in “Get On Up”) look effortless, and makes his distinctive and unusual craft look like second nature rather than like the actorly modernism that it is. In “Marshall,” Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall (in a story of Marshall’s work as a civil-rights attorney, set decades before he became a Supreme Court Justice) with a similarly inhabited air—an expansive power that’s the opposite of haunted or theatrical. Boseman’s performance is grandly dialectical, but his way with the word conveys, above all, the intellectual power and the historical undercurrent that gives rise to the word; here, too, his virtuosity is subordinated into a physical presence that virtually bursts through the screen with a startling immediacy that nonetheless seems to be entirely that of Marshall.

Boseman was an extraordinarily graceful actor—perhaps the most graceful one of his generation. His ability to generate enormous power with the appearance of minimal strain is both an art and a mark of personality, of a devotion and a humility that Hollywood values even less for its authenticity, its sincerity. In the role of T’Challa, in “Black Panther,” Boseman dons the royal mantle with a serenity that reflects a clear and principled sense of purpose—and that again wears lightly the burden of responsibility that comes with it. The movie, for all its Marvelous artifice, both asserts the Black identity of superheroic characters and of American pop culture at large, while also joining American Blackness to the heritage of African culture. The movie, through the creative efforts of its director, Ryan Coogler (who wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole), takes on a responsibility far greater than that of any other film in the Marvel cycle, greater perhaps than any work of mass entertainment in recent years—and Boseman, at its center, carries that responsibility with an understated grandeur that, once more, conveys a sense of humility.

What’s more, Boseman, for all that he achieved, did so quickly but belatedly. He had only a handful of starring and major roles; though he died at forty-three, he was really only just getting started. He had only begun to work with the leading directors of the time; his art and his style, though fully formed, had only begun to reveal their immense, historic possibilities. Boseman’s role in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” as Stormin’ Norman, the troop commander who, while fighting in Vietnam, was also a virtual mentor in Black history and politics to the men serving under his command, is similarly imbued with the responsibility and the weight of history. The role, despite its brevity, is the fulcrum of the movie, the source of emotional energy and of ideas that propel the drama.

The casting in Lee’s film is apt: here, Boseman, while inhabiting the role fully, is also, in a way, emblematic of his own artistic passion for history, for properly redefining the cultural record to reflect the centrality of Black lives and achievements. This, too, is part of Boseman’s gracefulness and devotion—his performances suggest that the only thing that’s remarkable about such an effort is the distressing fact that it is, today, still necessary. It is, perhaps, this very sense of history, of responsibility, of implicit but intensely personal political commitment, that also inhibited the acclaim, while Boseman lived and worked, from his timid and stumbling Hollywood milieu.

Doonesbury — Turnabout.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sunday Reading

John Cassidy in The New Yorker argues that the indictment of Julian Assange is a threat to journalism.

Imagine that, in the summer of 2014, the Justice Department had indicted Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, charging that, in 2010, he engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, to “facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.”

How do you think the editorial page of the New York Times would have reacted? (In July, 2010, the Times joined with the Guardian and Der Spiegel to publish tens of thousands of the documents that Manning provided to WikiLeaks.) What about the editorial page of the Washington Post, which published extensive stories about the leaked material? This material included video footage from 2007 of a U.S. Army Apache gunship carrying out an attack in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Iraqi civilians who were working for Reuters.

We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the Times would have published an editorial that said, “The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime.” It also seems unlikely that the Post would have published an editorial that said, “Mr. Assange’s case could conclude as a victory for the rule of law, not the defeat for civil liberties of which his defenders mistakenly warn.” Both of these statements were contained in editorials that the Times and the Post, respectively, published on Thursday, after Assange was arrested, in London, and Donald Trump’s Justice Department unsealed a federal indictment that federal prosecutors filed in Northern Virginia, last year.

Of course, a great deal has happened since 2014, much of it awful. During the 2016 Presidential election, Assange and WikiLeaks repeatedly published information that was damaging to the Democratic Party and to Hillary Clinton, timing the releases for maximum political damage. Assange denied that the Russian government was the source of this information, but, last summer, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, charged twelve Russian intelligence operatives with hacking D.N.C. servers and the e-mail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. Mueller’s indictment said that the Russian spies “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to release additional stolen documents through a website maintained by an organization (‘Organization 1’),” which was WikiLeaks.

Whether he knew it or not, Assange was a key participant in an outrageous Russian effort to sow division inside this country and help Donald Trump. It is understandable that the events of 2016 have heavily colored perceptions of Assange’s arrest and possible extradition to the United States. (“Once in the United States, moreover, he could become a useful source on how Russia orchestrated its attacks on the Clinton campaign,” the Times editorial noted.) But it is important to recognize that the legal charges against him have nothing to do with Russia or the 2016 election. They relate exclusively to his dealings with Manning, in 2010. As numerous media watchdogs and civil-rights groups have already pointed out, they amount to a dangerous attack on the freedom of the press and on efforts by whistle-blowers to alert the public of the actions of powerful institutions, including the U.S. government.

In explaining the charges against Assange, the indictment’s “manners and means of the conspiracy” section describes many actions that are clearly legitimate journalistic practices, such as using encrypted messages, cultivating sources, and encouraging those sources to provide more information. It cites a text exchange in which Manning told Assange, “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” and Assange replied, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” If that’s part of a crime, the authorities might have to start building more jails to hold reporters.

The indictment, and some of the commentary it engendered, also makes much of the fact that Assange offered to try to crack a computer password for Manning. The Department of Justice claims that this action amounted to Assange engaging in a “hacking” conspiracy. Even some independent commentators have suggested that it went beyond the bounds of legitimate journalism—and the protections of the First Amendment.

But did it? On Thursday, my colleague Raffi Khatchadourian, who has written extensively about Assange, pointed out that, as of now, it looks like Assange didn’t do much, if anything, to crack the password once Manning sent the encrypted version. Khatchadourian also pointed out that federal prosecutors have known about this text exchange for many years, and yet the Obama Administration didn’t bring any charges. “As evidence of a conspiracy,” Khatchadourian writes, “the exchange is thin gruel.”

Even if Assange had succeeded in decoding the encryption, it wouldn’t have given Manning access to any classified information she couldn’t have accessed through her own account. “Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers using a username that did not belong to her,” the indictment says. “Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.” So the goal was to protect Manning’s identity, and Assange offered to assist. But who could argue that trying to help a source conceal his or her identity isn’t something investigative journalists do on a routine basis?

Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the indictment as “deeply troubling” because of the precedent it sets. “With this prosecution of Julian Assange, the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest,” Mahoney warned.

The editorial in the Times did ultimately acknowledge “that the prosecution of Mr. Assange could become an assault on the First Amendment and whistle-blowers.” The Post’s editorial didn’t even go that far. Instead, it ended by saying Assange “is long overdue for personal accountability.” Many people would agree with that statement. But it is important not to view absolutely everything through the prism of 2016.

Putting The Picture Together — Marina Koren in The Atlantic on how the pieces came together to get the picture of the black hole.

The picture of a black hole, captured for the first time, shows a ring as radiant as gold against the darkness of space. At its center, the charcoal shadow of a void so powerful, nothing can escape its pull.

The dreamy photograph represents a tremendous technological achievement, assembled using eight radio telescopes in four continents—two each in Hawaii and Chile, and one each in Arizona, Mexico, Spain, and Antarctica—all synced together to scan the skies for several days in a row.

But the picture would not exist without technology much less sophisticated: computer disk drives.

The telescopes’ data had to go to two astronomy institutions to be processed, MIT’s Haystack Observatory in the United States and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany. An email attachment wasn’t going to work. The observatories had collected five petabytes of data. The average iPhone has 64 gigabytes of data storage. One million gigabytes are in one petabyte. It would have taken years for the data to cross the internet.

And so the data were carried on hundreds of hard disk drives, shipped to and from the observatories through plain old FedEx. Which is kind of marvelous, when you think about it. In a world where transferring information from one end of the world to another takes only a click, some things still have to be done the old-fashioned way. Humanity owes its first glimpse of one of the most mysterious objects in the universe not to something flashy and high tech, but a technology that has been around since the late 1950s, and transportation methods far older.

And to find out how it’s done, you have to talk with Don Sousa.

Sousa is a computer-support specialist at the Haystack Observatory. He’s also the shipping guy. He handled virtually every shipment for the Event Horizon Telescope, the effort to photograph a black hole.

Sousa grew up a few towns over from Haystack and has the trademark Boston-area accent to prove it. Over decades at the observatory, he has packaged equipment, put in orders, wrangled foreign customs regulations, and filled out reams of paperwork so that all kinds of hardware, from atomic clocks to disk drives, gets where it is needed. Before disk drives became widely available, he shipped reels of magnetic tape. “It’s amazing the differences from the mid-eighties, when I started, to what we do now,” Sousa says.

For the Event Horizon Telescope, Sousa packaged the disk drives in groups of eight. (“These are off-the-shelf hard drives,” he says. “You could buy them for your own personal computer if you wanted.”) The stacks were placed inside custom cases that allowed data to be recorded on all eight drives at once. Each module—eight disks, plus their custom coating—weighed about 23 pounds. Sousa shipped them in boxes labeled fragile and lined with a two-inch layer of foam, with cutouts in the middle to snuggle the modules, like precious jewelry in an antique box.

Sousa says he uses mostly FedEx and UPS. Some routes were trickier than others. Chile and Mexico had stricter rules about what could cross their borders. Sousa had to obtain a special license from the U.S. Department of Commerce to ship a particular piece of equipment to Mexico.

The toughest destination was the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. Without a nation to decide customs law, the continent relies on shipping agencies in Christchurch, New Zealand, which dispatch cargo ships and planes to the ice. Sousa had to coordinate with the National Science Foundation, which operates the research station where the telescope is based. Shipments had to meet very detailed specifications; Haystack had to build a wooden crate to carry the modules, because plastic containers weren’t allowed. “If it gets to Christchurch and something’s wrong, your equipment just sits there,” Sousa says.

The journey to the eight observatories was fine. It was the return trip that was worrisome. There were too much data to go through the burden of making extra copies; the disks that flew out of the stations were the only ones they had. “Going out there, they’re just blank,” says Mike Titus, the researcher who operated the supercomputer that helped synthesize all the data into a single, composite image. “Coming back, they’re precious commodities.”

I asked Titus whether the team considered asking a file-sharing service like Dropbox to build them something capable of transferring all those petabytes. “Don’t tell me that Amazon Cloud and Google Cloud, they wouldn’t love to have our data and store it for us,” Titus said, laughing. But even groundbreaking scientific teams don’t have that kind of budget. “Too much data and too much money—that’s why we don’t do it that way. Nothing beats the bandwidth of a 747 filled with hard disks.”

The return of the disks from the South Pole was particularly welcome. The shipment arrived months after all the rest thanks to the Antarctic winter, which had prevented anyone from flying in. The staff at Haystack was jubilant when FedEx arrived with a truck full of cosmic goodies from the bottom of the Earth. “It’s like they thought we were expecting penguins to jump out of the box or something,” says Nancy Wolfe Kotary, the communications officer at Haystack.

Sousa understood the concern, but he wasn’t too worried himself. “I’ve shipped to every continent,” he says, and in his 32 years on the job, he hasn’t lost one package.

Well, there was one, but it wasn’t his fault, or even the fault of any shipping company. The equipment, bound for a new research station in South Africa, cleared customs in Johannesburg and was loaded onto a truck. On the road, the truck was hijacked, and its contents stolen. “To this day, we figure it’s sitting somewhere on a coffee table as a conversation piece,” Sousa says.

Sousa plans to retire in three years and enter a new phase of his life that doesn’t require checking tracking alerts every day. He doesn’t have a background in science; before joining Haystack, he worked as a police officer for the state of Massachusetts. For him, the photo is the culmination of years’ worth of effort by astronomers and shipping experts alike. But the actual shot, he says, is pretty impressive, too.

Doonesbury — That’s Headley.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Covering The Coverup

The New York Times is out with an analysis of how Trump and his minions have routinely tried to quash, silence, and intimidate anyone or any news organization trying to uncover the truth about whatever the hell is going in in his administration.

WASHINGTON — As federal prosecutors in Manhattan gathered evidence late last year about President Trump’s role in silencing women with hush payments during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called Matthew G. Whitaker, his newly installed attorney general, with a question. He asked whether Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and a Trump ally, could be put in charge of the widening investigation, according to several American officials with direct knowledge of the call.

Mr. Whitaker, who had privately told associates that part of his role at the Justice Department was to “jump on a grenade” for the president, knew he could not put Mr. Berman in charge because Mr. Berman had already recused himself from the investigation. The president soon soured on Mr. Whitaker, as he often does with his aides, and complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.

Trying to install a perceived loyalist atop a widening inquiry is a familiar tactic for Mr. Trump, who has been struggling to beat back the investigations that have consumed his presidency. His efforts have exposed him to accusations of obstruction of justice as Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, finishes his work investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr. Trump’s public war on the inquiry has gone on long enough that it is no longer shocking. Mr. Trump rages almost daily to his 58 million Twitter followers that Mr. Mueller is on a “witch hunt” and has adopted the language of Mafia bosses by calling those who cooperate with the special counsel “rats.” His lawyer talks openly about a strategy to smear and discredit the special counsel investigation. The president’s allies in Congress and the conservative news media warn of an insidious plot inside the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to subvert a democratically elected president.

An examination by The New York Times reveals the extent of an even more sustained, more secretive assault by Mr. Trump on the machinery of federal law enforcement. Interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and others close to Mr. Trump, as well as a review of confidential White House documents, reveal numerous unreported episodes in a two-year drama.

White House lawyers wrote a confidential memo expressing concern about the president’s staff peddling misleading information in public about the firing of Michael T. Flynn, the Trump administration’s first national security adviser. Mr. Trump had private conversations with Republican lawmakers about a campaign to attack the Mueller investigation. And there was the episode when he asked his attorney general about putting Mr. Berman in charge of the Manhattan investigation.

Mr. Whitaker, who this month told a congressional committee that Mr. Trump had never pressured him over the various investigations, is now under scrutiny by House Democrats for possible perjury.

On Tuesday, after The Times article published, Mr. Trump denied that he had asked Mr. Whitaker if Mr. Berman could be put in charge of the investigation. “No, I don’t know who gave you that, that’s more fake news,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s a lot of fake news out there. No, I didn’t.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman said Tuesday that the White House had not asked Mr. Whitaker to interfere in the investigations. “Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,’” said the spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”

The story of Mr. Trump’s attempts to defang the investigations has been voluminously covered in the news media, to such a degree that many Americans have lost track of how unusual his behavior is. But fusing the strands reveals an extraordinary story of a president who has attacked the law enforcement apparatus of his own government like no other president in history, and who has turned the effort into an obsession. Mr. Trump has done it with the same tactics he once used in his business empire: demanding fierce loyalty from employees, applying pressure tactics to keep people in line and protecting the brand — himself — at all costs.

It should be noted that the Justice Department’s denial of Mr. Whitaker’s actions is irrelevant.  It’s that Trump tried to get an attorney that was on his side to run the investigation.  Whether or not Mr. Whitaker complied isn’t the issue; that Trump tried is.

What emerges from this story is that Trump is obsessed with putting an end to any news coverage of him that isn’t fawning.  Given his past and his personality, that’s not surprising, but where it has gotten him in trouble is that in order to win over the base and win the election, he and his minions engaged in illegal acts, and now they’re trying to cover them up and intimidate and demonize anyone who is trying to get to the truth.  Innocent people don’t act like that.  If they’ve done nothing wrong, they don’t need to.

The other element in this story is the acknowledgment that the public is basically immune to being outraged or surprised by Trump.  That’s to be expected in a time when a viral meme can come and go with the lifespan of a fruit fly — this week’s media obsession is next week’s question in bar trivia contests — but whether or not the public cares or is aware of high crimes and misdemeanors really has no bearing on whether or not he should be held accountable.  Nor should the attempts by his leather-lunged supporters to distract our attention with yet another attempt to bring up Hillary’s e-mails or Barack’s birth certificate.  Those of us who are old enough to remember Watergate know that the public was far more interested in what happened to Patty Hearst than what Richard Nixon was doing in the West Wing.  It wasn’t until the Senate hearings interrupted “The Price Is Right” and soap operas that the average voter was even aware that crimes had taken place, and their response was typical: “When will I get my stories back?”

Fortunately that doesn’t matter.   Justice and the application thereof is not based on how it trends on Twitter, and no amount of threats and cries of “Fake News!” will put an end to it.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Hide And Seek

Trump’s obsession with the media and what they’re reporting tells me a couple of things.  First, he isn’t in favor of the idea of a free press unless it’s saying nice things about him and bashing everyone else, and second, there must be a shitload of dirt on him somewhere and he’s freaked out about it getting into the light of day.  Given that he was able to get elected while having the Access Hollywood tape out there plus all of his on-stage antics — bashing the disabled, Gold Star parents, any woman who didn’t acknowledge his charms, and all the other flaws he waved under our noses — the true tales must be really something.

I’m not sure what kind of delusion he was under to get him to think that the press was going to fawn over him like a newborn infant, but since the only news he watches is Fox, it’s not surprising that he thinks all the other news outlets are out to get him.  Any news story that doesn’t flatter him is fake, and Google must be biased because its search algorithms only pull up stories about him that have the most hits, not the most “likes.”  That’s to be expected when your role models of leadership are Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.  So when you see that freedom of the press can also mean that facts matter more than propaganda and reality means that people will call you out when you blatantly lie and have the tapes and facts to prove it, the only remedy you have to resort to are threats and tantrums.

This latest rant tells me that something big is coming, and probably soon.  Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House” is due to be published in a couple of weeks and so far very little has leaked out, but the tidbits that have are enough to set people on edge and Trump on a rant.  Whether or not they contain bombshells is unknown, but that combined with the news that he and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, tried to buy up all the dirt that the National Enquirer has on him indicates that what’s hidden would be bad news to the people who read supermarket tabloids the way stockbrokers read the Wall Street Journal: it’s their gospel.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday Reading

The Right Thing To Do — Charles P. Pierce on the newspaper editorials’ response to Trump.

Congress shall make no law…

To tell you the truth, I was preparing to mock the idea of a couple hundred newspapers’ getting together all at the same time to punch back at El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago. It seems like so much inside-baseball wankery, and it didn’t look to change any minds, and, frankly, the real enemy of local newspapers are the beancounters in the various corporate headquarters who think you can cover a city with two reporters, a laptop, and a couple of drones. Media consolidation and corporate timidity completed the job that Spiro Agnew started in the modern era. But I thought about the year 2030, and then I changed my mind.

One day in the future, when the awful crime this country committed against itself somehow has been largely expiated, it’s going to be important to remember who stood against an incompetent and half-mad Peronista wannabe, and who did not. That the idea came from my most recent alma mater fills me with not a little pride, too. From the editorial published in The Boston Globe on Thursday, its central theme reiterated in 200 newspapers, small and large, all across the country:

Replacing a free media with a state-run media has always been a first order of business for any corrupt regime taking over a country. Today in the United States we have a president who has created a mantra that members of the media who do not blatantly support the policies of the current US administration are the “enemy of the people.” This is one of the many lies that have been thrown out by this president, much like an old-time charlatan threw out “magic” dust or water on a hopeful crowd…

There was once broad, bipartisan, intergenerational agreement in the United States that the press played this important role. Yet that view is no longer shared by many Americans. “The news media is the enemy of the American people,” is a sentiment endorsed by 48 percent of Republicans surveyed this month by Ipsos polling firm. That poll is not an outlier. One published this week found 51 percent of Republicans considered the press “the enemy of the people rather than an important part of democracy.”

Having spent the last two decades watching American newspapers flounder against new technologies, and debase themselves in a hundred ways trying to coddle what readers they had by telling those readers what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear, and turning “objectivity” and “balance” into a kind of survival cult in which any idea, no matter how pernicious, was treated as having an equal value with any other idea simply because a desperate business model didn’t want to lose even one set of eyeballs, it was bracing to see the editorials call out their readers for failing to inform themselves the way good citizens of a self-governing republic should. That was long overdue. It also recognizes that newspapers are trying to atone for their own shortcomings in abetting a spavined and desiccated attitude toward the truth that made the current president* not only possible, but inevitable.

I still don’t think this changes any minds. But I no longer think that’s important. Sometimes, it’s just the right thing to do simply to yell at the correct buildings. Truth is in a fight for survival at the moment, and if this profession won’t join that fight, it’s hard to think of another one that will. If the role of the press in a self-governing republic is going to be imperiled, can it at least be imperiled by a person of some substance, instead of a television carny barker confused by the concept of time zones? I mean, holy hell, this profession has faced down dictators and actual armies. What good are we if we can’t defend ourselves against an obvious clown?

The Clairvoyance of Aretha Franklin — Doreen St. Félix in The New Yorker.

An inarticulate misery, and yet the desperate need to articulate it, is what brought the thunderous wonder of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” to the earth. In August of 1932, the musician, who had left the packed blues clubs and rent-raising parties of the South for a Baptist-church choir in Chicago, took brief leave of his pregnant wife, Nettie Dorsey, for a gig in St. Louis. While performing, a messenger handed him a Western Union telegram that read “YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.” The baby died, too. He buried his wife and son in the same casket.

When Dorsey returned to his empty South Side apartment, he was prepared to abandon his God. The Baptist-church elders, stern in their faith, advised him to submit to God’s will. Later, Dorsey would recall being coaxed by his choir associate, Theodore Frye, to approach a piano in a local school. Before the instrument, Dorsey felt overcome with a strange peace. A melody of the nineteenth-century religious composer George Nelson Allen coursed through him. “As my fingers began to manipulate over keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock,” Dorsey later said. He gave the first performance of “Precious Lord” at his church shortly after his wife and baby’s death, and the act of uninhibited spiritual praise was forever changed.

How this hymn, the greatest example of American lamentation, how it travels. It passed through Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who electrified Dorsey’s pleas; through Nina Simone, who grasped the first verse so delicately that it is nearly painful to attend; through Elvis Presley, who dared to root the song more deeply in the workaday wretchedness of man; through Mahalia Jackson, who made the hymn somehow more transcendent. Jackson was in the habit of visiting with C. L. Franklin, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist, in Detroit. She was taken by the preacher’s young daughter Aretha, who was, in her craft, trying to match her father’s prophetic fire. Through Aretha—so many times through Aretha—“Precious Lord” was an existential cry, a justice prayer shed of pretense. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s favorite hymn, and it’s said that his last words were a request to have it ring at his funeral. Franklin sang the song at a memorial service for her friend King, in 1968; she was still in tune with the primal frisson when she delivered her rendition at the dedication of the memorial to King in Washington, D.C., in 2011. She assisted Jackson’s transition to that other realm, washing the faithful with “Precious Lord” at Jackson’s funeral, in Chicago, in 1972. “Precious Lord, take my hand . . .  I’m tired / I’m weak / I’m ’lone”: Franklin interprets it as a relationship song—did God do her and her people wrong? The hymn is a confrontation, spurred by agony, then loneliness, then immobilizing veneration.

What we have lost with Aretha Franklin is technical mastery, yes, but also an ancestral instinct. She was in a heady and guttural conversation with the struggle that made her. She was a vessel and a commander. She knew her God like John Donne did—intensely, almost physically. She was of the black church, the church of protest, the church of brash women, the church of sorrows and of ecstasy, and yet she was also of her own church. We hear that church, already clarion, in the 1956 recording of “Precious Lord,” from her first album, “Songs of Faith.” It was recorded at New Bethel; the congregation hollers. Franklin was just fourteen years old, already a mother, without her mother. She draws from a font of pain and awe and indignation so worldly that you may flinch in disbelief: “Hear my cry, hear my call.” It is as though she is wrapping her instrument around death and strangling it. She then leaves Dorsey’s man-made words behind, as they are inefficient for expressing the way she feels both about her God and about transmitting the miracle of her voice. The child elder starts humming, then moaning, deep and steady and not at all faintly aroused. Moaning in the church. The interlude is a premonition of her career, which imprinted on us the power and the anguish in sacred and sexual love. “Ain’t no harm to moan,” she says, before taking up the verse again. Listening now, during this national wake for her, we know where Franklin will go, what educations she will preach. The fourteen-year-old maybe knows, too. The clairvoyance of her “Precious Lord” is staggering.

Doonesbury — Trivial Pursuit.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Real Enemy Of The People

Editorial boards across the country and even overseas are joining the Boston Globe to speak out against Trump’s attacks on the media as, to quote Josef Stalin, “the enemy of the people.”  The Miami Herald, as a part of the McClatchy chain of papers, printed their thoughts.

No American president, or any city council member, for that matter, has ever unreservedly delighted in the way he or she was presented in the press. “I so appreciate the accuracy of their reporting on my perceived flaws!” said no official ever. “And good for them for holding me accountable.”

But President Donald Trump has veered into unfamiliar and perilous territory with his unceasing all-out assault on the free press and the First Amendment. Of course, the irony of Trump’s attacks on the “SICK!” and “very dishonest people” in “the fake media” he accuses of purveying, yes, “fake news” is that he himself is a product of the New York tabloids. He’s as savvy about manipulating his coverage as he is adept in undermining it.

But today the consequences of the president’s perpetual battle against journalists extend far beyond the Manhattan gossip pages. And the animus you see directed at CNN’s Jim Acosta isn’t just reserved for the White House press corps. Everywhere in the country, any matter that an official doesn’t want to talk about or that a reader doesn’t want to hear about is “fake news” now.

In our business, we know how much words matter. We know, too, that Trump’s references to us as the “enemy of the American People” are no less dangerous because they happen to be strategic. That is what Nazis called Jews. It’s how Joseph Stalin’s critics were marked for execution.

Every reporter who has ever covered a Trump rally knows the scratch of a threat that’s conveyed during that ritual moment when he aims the attention of the crowd to reporters, many of whom no longer stand in the press pen in the back for that reason.

And as real as the threat of physical violence is, especially after the murder of our colleagues in Annapolis, Maryland, Trump’s aggressive posture toward the First Amendment worries us even more.

That’s why nearly all of McClatchy’s 30 daily newspapers, which almost never speak with one voice, are doing so now. That’s why we’re joining with fellow journalists across the country in calling for an end to the president’s war of words against our free press.

It’s an affront to the U.S. Constitution when President Trump threatens to eliminate the First Amendment protections the Supreme Court has built into our nation’s libel laws — or when he suggests revoking the FCC licenses of broadcast news organizations whose reporting he doesn’t like.

The White House’s besmirching of journalists who are doing their jobs is dangerous to the public as well as to the press. It’s not just that we dislike being called “fake news.” That misnomer discredits facts and creates what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts,” making reasoned and informed debate basically impossible.

We all — as citizens — have a stake in this fight, and the battle lines seem pretty clear. If one first comes successfully for the press as an “enemy of the American People,” what stops someone for coming next for your friends? Your family? Or you?

Not even President Richard Nixon, whose original “enemies list” of the 20 private citizens he hoped to use his public office to “screw” included three journalists, tried to incite violence against reporters. While stewing privately about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “enemies … trying to stick the knife right in our groin,” not even Nixon tagged the lot of us, Soviet-style, as “enemies of the people.” Nor did even he dare to take on the idea that our free press is worth protecting.

Donald Trump swore on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible to uphold the Constitution. And the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” implies that no branch of government will do so.

That 44 percent of Republicans polled recently said Trump should have the autocrat’s power to shut down news outlets shows how successful his efforts have already been.

Like Nixon, Trump still pines for the kind of coverage his behavior makes impossible. But his place in history will be far less mixed than Nixon’s if he continues to menace James Madison’s best work.

Having worked, however briefly in the news business (nine months), I know all too well the pressure reporters are under to get the story, get it right, and make sure that it is reported as fairly and without bias as possible.  That’s all you can hope for, and there’s never time to sit back and try to spin it or slant it.  You ask questions, you do your research, and if someone tells you something, you check it out.  The people you report on may have an agenda, but the only one you have is to the truth as best you can find it.  In other words, it’s too hard to come up with “fake news;” getting the real news is hard enough, and anyone who voluntarily takes the low pay, the long hours, and the countless attempts to prove you wrong are truly dedicated to their mission.

Trump’s attacks on the press and the people who report the news stink of desperation and consciousness of guilt.  Granted, no one likes seeing their faults printed or being called out for falsehoods, but that’s human nature.  The true sign of maturity and of civilized society is the ability to either accept it, laugh it off, or make amends.

The real enemy of the people are those who would try to repress the true expression of the truth or the attempts to do so.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Enemy Of The People

Until Trump came along, the only time most people had heard the term “enemy of the people” was in old newsreels about Stalin or in theatre history class discussing the play of the same name by Henrik Ibsen.  (By the way, it’s a really good play and a cautionary tale for our times.)  But now Trump is slandering the media with that tag, and it’s being thrown around by his minions, including Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Yesterday she got into an exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta.

Notice that her complaints are all how the press has treated her. That’s all it really is; she’s the victim here and it’s SO unfair.  That seems to be why she is incapable of agreeing with Ivanka Trump that the press is not the enemy of the people.

First, if you’re going to be the White House press secretary, you’re going to get a lot of scrutiny and be held accountable for what you and the people you represent do and say.  (Oh, and if you’ve got a list of grievances about how those meanies in the media go after you, sit down with Hillary Clinton and hear what it’s like to have the press go after you for real.)

Second, and more importantly, the press’s job is not to be just an echo chamber for your balderdash and bullshit.  Their job is to ask the questions and get the answers and call out the bullshit when they see it.  (Ironically, not a lot of the press is actually doing that; most of the time they sit and watch.)  That’s what Sarah Huckabee Sanders objects to; that there are those in the press who call her and her boss out and wow does it hurt her fee-fees.

Hey, Ms. Sanders, you want to see the real enemy of the people?  Look in the mirror.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Pressing Issue

I suppose it’s not a bad thing that the publisher of the New York Times had a private meeting with Trump, and I suppose he had hopes that he would get his point across that telling the world from the Oval Office that the press is “the enemy of the people” isn’t good for anybody, but I’m not sure that it accomplished anything.

In a five-paragraph statement issued two hours after the tweet, Mr. Sulzberger said he had accepted Mr. Trump’s invitation for the July 20 meeting mainly to raise his concerns about the president’s “deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric.”

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” said Mr. Sulzberger, who became publisher of The Times on Jan. 1.

“I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’” Mr. Sulzberger continued. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

This is particularly true overseas, Mr. Sulzberger said, where governments are using Mr. Trump’s words as a pretext to crack down on journalists. He said he warned the president that his attacks were “putting lives at risk” and “undermining the democratic ideals of our nation.”

Mr. Sulzberger’s lengthy, bluntly worded rebuttal was a striking rejoinder to the president by the 37-year-old publisher of a paper with which Mr. Trump has had a long, complicated relationship. And it apparently touched a nerve: The president fired off a series of angry tweets in the afternoon, accusing newspapers of being unpatriotic.

“I will not allow our great country to be sold out by anti-Trump haters in the dying newspaper industry,” he wrote. “The failing New York Times and the Amazon Washington Post do nothing but write bad stories even on very positive achievements — and they will never change!”

Mr. Trump, in his initial tweet from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., on Sunday morning, described the meeting with Mr. Sulzberger as “very good and interesting.” But in referring to the phrase “enemy of the people,” he did not make clear that he himself began using that label about the press during his first year in office.

Other than, “Hey, we tried,” there’s not a whole lot the Times or any new outlet can say or do other than do their job regardless of what Trump thinks or tweets.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Reading

LGBTQ Refugees In Turkey — Masha Gessen in The New Yorker on the plight of getting out of oppression in the Middle East.

When you are a refugee, you learn all about the hierarchy of compassion. There are the people from war-torn countries—refugees from humanitarian catastrophes so enormous that they upend the world’s imagination, such as those who have escaped from Syria. There are people who have fled a sudden campaign of violence and hatred, such as the gay men who have been escaping from Chechnya for the past year. And then there is you: unlucky enough to have suffered the kind of misfortune that can’t seem to hold onto a headline. From the officers of U.N.H.C.R.—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that runs refugee-resettlement operations around the world—what you hear is this: “There is no country for you.”

Ali (he asked not to use his full name) is a gay man from Iran who reached out to me on behalf of L.G.B.T. refugees in Turkey. We have corresponded and talked on Skype during the last few days. When we spoke, he tried to make clear that he doesn’t begrudge the world’s focus on the refugees from Syria. Nor does he begrudge the activism that has helped more than a hundred queer Chechens flee their country for the safety of Canada, France, Germany, and other destinations. Ali wants everyone to make it to safety. But he and other L.G.B.T. refugees currently living in Turkey feel like they have been forgotten.

Refugees usually flee their country for one where they can apply, at an U.N.H.C.R. office, to find a third country in which to resettle. The process is not the same as entering a country directly and seeking asylum there—which is an option most refugees don’t have—but it does mean that people have the legal status of refugee when they finally arrive in their destination country. And, in theory, refugees are safe while in the care of the U.N.H.C.R. But U.N.H.C.R. facilities in Turkey have been overwhelmed since the current refugee crisis began: there are more than three and a half million refugees from Syria in the country, along with more than three hundred and sixty-five thousand refugees from other countries. This means that processing times to receive refugee status, which is required before resettlement can begin, have stretched from several weeks to a couple of years. Refugees receive little to no financial or housing assistance while they are in Turkey.

When I asked Ali how old he was, he was momentarily stumped. “I’ve stopped counting the years since I came here,” he said. He did know his birthday, though, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that he was thirty-five. He grew up in Iran. He told me that he was detained by security services, held overnight, and tortured, in 2004—he would have been twenty-two at the time. This scared him so much that, for a couple of years, he stopped blogging on L.G.B.T. topics; in fact, he stopped writing altogether. But then he returned to writing, and even organized some clandestine meetings of gay men. When Ali’s parents found out about his homosexuality, they had him committed to a psychiatric hospital. When he was released back into their care, they kept him under lock and key for a year and a half, and then tried to force him into marriage. He took part in elaborate charades in order to secure a small measure of freedom. He even began making a documentary about gay life in Iran. But, when several of the friends with whom he was making the film were arrested, he realized that he had to flee. “I could be arrested and hanged at any time,” he said. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran.

In 2010, Ali and his partner, who is from India, moved to India together. Ali felt safer, but soon his partner was being harassed and blackmailed by neighbors, who threatened to turn him in to the police. (In India, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment.) In 2014, the two men went to Turkey in hopes of finding their way to a safe country. Like many gay refugees—and unlike perhaps any other group of refugees—Ali would have preferred to go to a country where he didn’t have relatives. But when the men finally had their refugee status, a year and a half after arriving in Turkey, they asked to be resettled anywhere, in any country that would take them.

They knew, however, that only two countries—Canada and the United States—resettle L.G.B.T. refugees as a matter of practice. By the time Ali and his partner were eligible to be resettled, it was late 2016. Canada had announced its commitment to taking in more Syrian refugees, which still made barely a dent in the number of refugees needing resettlement; it also meant that refugees from other countries were no longer getting resettled in Canada. And Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. Almost as soon as he was inaugurated, he would impose a ban on refugees from eleven countries that he considers “high-risk,” Iran among them. (The ban has since been lifted—or, more accurately, relaxed slightly, but the U.S. has also drastically cut the number of refugees it accepts over all.) These events led to how Ali and other L.G.B.T. refugees came to hear the phrase “There is no country for you.” This is what they hear when they inquire about their cases at U.N.H.C.R., Ali said.

Ali estimates that between seven and eight hundred L.G.B.T. refugees are now stuck in Turkey without the prospect of resettlement. Most of them are from Iran, with some from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East. Over the past couple of years, as their hopes of finding a home in the world have dwindled, their life in Turkey has grown harder. Ali was careful to again acknowledge that things are hard for all refugees—all of them have to fend for themselves; all face ever-increasing bureaucratic hurdles to securing work permits; all face increasing impatience, and sometimes hostility, from local residents. Still, Ali said, “if we were from a war-torn country and we entered Turkey, we would be safe in Turkey because there is no war here. But we are fleeing homophobic and transphobic attacks, and we face them here.”

The U.N.H.C.R. assigns refugees to small towns in Turkey, where they are expected to stay as long as they are in the country; the Turkish authorities require them to check in weekly in their assigned town. Far from the thriving queer scene in Istanbul, small towns and cities in Turkey tend to be socially conservative, and have grown only more so during the country’s recent political crackdown. Ali told me that, during the first ten days of June, five L.G.B.T. refugees were attacked in Yalova, a small coastal city on the Sea of Marmara where many of Istanbul’s secular élite historically kept summer homes. One of the victims, a trans woman, had to be hospitalized for three days following a stabbing. This is not unusual, Ali said: “People are beaten up, raped, gang-raped.”

The hopelessness is its own kind of violence, too. “We have seen people commit suicide, go into severe depression,” Ali said. “One lesbian single mother couldn’t get medical treatment for her small child here, and had to go back to Iran for it. She committed suicide there.”

Earlier this month, a number of the L.G.B.T. refugees gathered to try to figure out what to do. “After losing hope for U.S. resettlement, we see that there is no option ahead of us,” Ali said. “We decided to show our own desperation.” This was no small decision. Under the provisions of the state of emergency that has been in effect in Turkey for nearly two years, protest is effectively banned. Refugees have every reason to fear being deported if they protest.

Such was their despair, however, that, on June 4th, several of the refugees went to the offices of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, a Turkish organization that is largely funded by the European Union, in two cities—Yalova and Denizli—and stood in silent protest. They held placards with summaries of their stories (“Gay refugee. 5 years. 60 months. 240 weeks. 1680 days. Still in Turkey. Future: uncertain!!!”) and slogans (“We demand urgent resettlement of all LGBT refugees to a safe country!!”). More than two hundred of the refugees also signed a petition addressed to European, North American, and international officials. The online version of the petition is titled “Save LGBT refugees in Turkey who are abandoned in unsafe conditions for years with no help.”

For all the courage the protest took, it received no media coverage. A few days later, Ali reached out to me. “We are requesting the world to help us reach to safety before its too late,” he wrote.

Cartoon Censorship — Samantha Michaels on the firing of Rob Rogers.

On Thursday, veteran editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers was abruptly fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a string of anti-Trump illustrations were spiked from the newspaper.

Rogers, who joined the Post-Gazette in 1993, says 19 cartoons or proposed drawings were killed by the paper over a three-month period, including six in a single week shortly before he was fired. “After so many years of punch lines and caricatures, skewering mayors and mullahs, the new regime at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decided that The Donald trumped satire when it came to its editorial pages,” he wrote in an op-ed on Friday.

The Post-Gazette’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block—who boasted about joining Donald Trump on his private jet at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign—defended the decision. “It has little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump,” he told the Washington Post. “It has mostly to do with working together and the editing process.”

Below are some of Rogers’ recent cartoons going after some of Trump’s most divisive and disturbing actions as president. “The paper may have taken an eraser to my cartoons,” Rogers wrote in the op-ed. “But I plan to be at my drawing table every day of this presidency.”

Full disclosure: I went to high school with John Robinson Block and his twin brother in Toledo in the late 1960’s.  His family has been running The Blade, and now they have the Post-Gazette.  (They’re probably still running “Mary Worth” on the comics page.)  They’ve always been stuffy old bores with no sense of humor or an appreciation for sharp wit.  It surprises me not at all that he would fire a cartoonist, and I’m not surprised at all that he’s a shill for Trump.

Doonesbury — She’s a natural.

Friday, January 12, 2018

You Said It

Since no one who has been following the news for the last couple of years was surprised in the least that Trump called Haiti and El Salvador and other places with a majority of non-white citizens “shithole countries,” the fun part was watching TV or reading online and finding out which commentators or journals would actually use the word “shithole” on the air or in print.

The Washington Post, which broke the story, shocked some readers by putting the vulgar word in its headline — a rare occurrence in the paper’s 141-year history.

“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy,” said Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

Such a comment made by the president, especially in front of several witnesses, is newsworthy, no matter how reprehensible it may be, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer who writes a language column in The Wall Street Journal.

“It was incumbent on media outlets to present what he said without extradition or euphemization,” he said.

That’s exactly what many of them did. In an unusual move, the word “shithole” was repeated in print and on air Thursday evening, in capital letters on the CNN and MSNBC headlines that appear on the lower part of the screen. Fox News censored the word with asterisks.

Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News warned viewers that the story would not be appropriate for younger viewers, while ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir said the president used “a profanity we won’t repeat.”

But CNN’s Phil Mudd embraced the expletive in condemning the president’s language, citing his Irish and Italian ancestry and the slurs once used against immigrants from those countries.

“I’m a proud shitholer!” he told Situation Room anchor Wolf Blitzer. “In the 1940s, we called people traitors because they came from a shithole country we call Japan. And we’re ashamed.”

For those who write dictionaries, the repetition of “shithole” on television and on the Internet was “the sort of thing we call a party,” wrote Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam Webster.

You could actually see that the network news broadcasters were getting a bit of adolescent glee out of being able to say the word on the air without fear of reprisal from the FCC; it’s like they’re actually enjoying it.  (The folks on cable TV did too, but they don’t have to worry about government oversight.  They just had fun with it.)

As for the newspapers, even the New York Times, ever the Aunt Pittypat of decorum, allowed the word to be used full-tilt in the body of the story but kept it out of their headlines.  Oh my stars and garters.  (The New York Daily News didn’t use the exact word in their headline, but a picture is worth a thousand asterisks.)

It’s also fun to see how quickly he blew up all the carefully choreographed message from the White House that he was both in control and a stable genius.  The mad scramble came from people checking their betting slips on how soon he would do something to torpedo that meme: who had under 24, 48, or 72 hours?  (Meanwhile, Eric Greitens, the governor of Missouri, is sending a box of candy and a dozen roses to the White House for knocking his sex scandal into the “In Other News” abyss.)

Since it’s not a news flash that Trump is a bigot and a racist, the only thing left now is gauging the reaction to the fact that even his staunchest supporters can’t hide behind the dog whistles that he’s been hardly using since long before he emerged as a presidential candidate. He was sued for racial discrimination in housing in the 1970’s, so it’s not like we didn’t know.  Now we get to see how all the Trumpistas, especially the ones who railed about character counting during the Clinton years, explain to the rest of us that labeling entire nations as shitholes is “shocking” without alienating the base of the voters who agree wholeheartedly with him.

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