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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, January 27, 2024

An announcement--and an account of contemporary journalism

 More than two weeks ago I discussed recent events at Harvard, the war in the Middle East, and my new book States of the Union with Glenn Loury of Brown University and the Manhattan Institute.  The discussion went very well, and the production staff enhanced it very effectively with still photos and one critical video clip from 1963.  You can watch it here.  Enjoy!

Last week I read Collision of Power, retired editor Marty Baron's account of his leadership of the Washington Post from 2013 through 2020.  Baron had previously edited the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe, and was immortalized by Liev Schreiber's laconic, low-affect portrayal of him in Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about the Globe's investigation of Catholic clergy sexual abuse.  People who worked for Baron have confirmed that the portrait was dead on.  Baron is a Boomer, born in 1954, and the only Boomer ever to run the Post's newsroom.  Like me, he evidently learned the classic values of his profession at an early age and stuck to them while his profession moved in a different direction.  By the end of his tenure at the Post, the book makes clear, he had clearly lost that battle.

The Post, like most major newspapers, had been losing money for some time when Baron because Executive Editor, and not long afterwards, the Graham family, which had owned the paper since the 1930s, sold it to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.  (As Baron repeatedly points out, Bezos, not Amazon, owns the Post now.)  A year or so later Bezos replaced Katharine Weymouth of the Graham family as publisher with another Boomer, Fred Ryan, as publisher, breaking the last link with the past.  Bezos emerges from the book as a most interesting character.  Like Baron, he is a man of few words who expresses his own opinion clearly and bluntly.  While he and Ryan weighed in critically on lots of business decisions--including the staffing of the Post--he never, Baron makes clear, tried to affect news coverage or opinion writing at all.  He re-oriented the paper towards paid digital subscriptions, which grew very impressively under Bezos's tenure, and digital advertising, and the paper began once again to show a profit.  He backed up Baron in the continual four-year battle with Donald Trump from 2017 through 2020, even after Trump began threatening (idly as it turned out) to retaliate against Amazon.  Bezos has a lot in common with Gilded age (and Gilded generation) figures like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who created similarly gigantic fortunes.  He is obviously his own man.  

Confronted with the unprecedented challenge of a president who described the media in general and the Post in particular as corrupt enemies of the people, Baron stuck to the principles of traditional journalism.  "We are not at war, we are at work," became his  mantra.  Rather than engage Trump on his own terms, he wanted the Post to remain a bastion of objective reporting, publishing only stories that would pass the same verification tests that generations of Post journalists had used in the past.  The specific stories he discusses in some detail are the documents leaked by Edward Snowden that revealed the scope of NSA surveillance of Americans; Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's misstatements to the FBI about contacts with the Russian Ambassador, which led to his conviction for lying and his pardon by Trump;  sexual misconduct allegations that led to the defeat of Roy Moore in an Alabama Senate race, and similar allegations which did not keep Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, the paper continually pointed out that Trump was lying about almost everything that he did.  Baron also chronicles the retaliatory steps that Trump took against the Post and other media outlets, including a whole private investigative effort that uncovered embarrassing social media posts by various journalists, some of whom resigned as a result.  Trump also took a $10 billion [sic] Pentagon contract for cloud services away from Amazon and tried to give it to Microsoft instead, a plan he was unable to execute before the Biden administration took office and parcelled the contract out to various tech giants.  Reporters meanwhile became subject to constant online threats, and some of them had to hire private security.   We shall inevitably see more of that this year, as Trump seems certain to secure the Republican nomination and make even more indiscriminate use of incitement than he has in the past in his all-out attempt to get back into the White House.

With Bezos behind him, Baron coped pretty successfully with Trump's attacks.  In the final chapters of the book, however, we find that he was less successful in dealing with an entirely different threat to his values: the contrary attitudes of much of his own staff, which emerged in connection with controversies over reporting on sexual harassment and in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

As Baron repeatedly makes clear, much of this conflict stemmed from entirely contradictory ideas about the role of reporters and whether they should allow their personal political views to influence their reporting.  He had been raised to believe in objectivity--and idea of an impartial, evidence-based search for truth,  which could only succeed if reporters were willing to follow facts wherever they led.  That ethos also forbade reporters from publicly expressing their own political views, which would obviously cast doubt on their objectivity and cost them the trust of a broad, bipartisan public.   At least two new pressures now called these views into question.  First of all, in the digital age, clicks measured success, and reporters' social media accounts--especially on Twitter--could generate more clicks for the paper, increasingly a matter of life and death.  Secondly, reporters--who, as Baron never mentions, had generally been educated at elite institutions where many professors had abandoned the idea of objective truth decades ago--increasingly accepted the idea of knowledge as political and wanted to privilege knowledge that favored their favorite causes over knowledge that did not.  For many, especially those for whom gender or race were critical issues, that was not simply a right but a duty.

Now the Post under Baron broke some important stories of sexual misconduct, and it made at least one very important contribution to reporting on race--the database of police shootings which it updates annually.  Baron describes how that database was established, but he does not mention that it has not in many ways substantiated the popular progressive view of such shootings.   Every year it shows that the majority of victims of police shootings are white, and that shootings of unarmed nonwhites are a tiny fraction of the total.  Regarding sexual misconduct cases, Baron tried to insist on the same verification standards that he always had. Two specific cases of disputes with reporters that Baron describes in great detail illustrate an unbridgeable gap between his values and those of some younger reporters.

The first, a black reporter named Wes Lowery who had also worked for the Globe, who had in fact been the leading figure in starting the police shooting database.  In a long series of tweets, Lowery began blasting the mainstream media for  coverage of Trump and Tea Party Republicans because it did not specifically refer to them as racists.  He also made personal attacks on individual journalists.  Baron tried repeatedly to get him to observe the Post's official social media policies, which called for more restraint, but he refused to admit that he had done anything wrong.  "Generations of black journalists, including here at The Washington Post," Lowery wrote during one exchange, "have served as the conscience not only of their publications but of our entire industry: their authority derive from the experience navigating the world while cloaked in black sink; their expertise earned through their own daily journalism.  Often those journalists have done so by leveling public criticism of both their competitors and their own employers.  News organizations often respond to such internal and external pressure."  A few months after those prophetic remarks, Lowery left the Post to take another job.

A second controversy involving a female reporter, Felicia Sonmez, got much worse. Sonmez in her interviews with the Post had identified herself as "a survivor of sexual misconduct."  While working in Beijing for the Wall Street Journal, she had accused a fellow reporter from the Los Angeles Times of sexual misconduct, even though her own account of the incident acknowledged her consent to sexual intercourse.  (This can be found on pp. 377-8 of Baron's book, to whom I refer any skeptics.)  The reporter was forced to resign as a result,. but Sonmez publicly complained that the Times had not done enough.  Eventually, the Post editors decided that she could not report on sexual abuse cases because she was continuing to tweet about her own and others so provocatively, inevitably casting doubt on  her objectivity.  She was eventually fired in 2022 after Baron's departure.   Many younger reporters from various demographics obviously believe that certain causes are sacred, that they must be pursued by any means necessary, and that traditional rules simply serve the interests of straight white males.  And now, as Baron mentions, even one of predecessors as Post executive editor, Leonard Downie (whom he does not name), has gone on record, along with former CBS News chief Andrew Heyward, stating that the news business should abandon the outmoded concept of "objectivity," which so many of its younger members reject.  Baron, like me, remains an apostate.

And despite his skepticism about these cases, Baron in the last year of his tenure sympathized fully with the black staffers at the Post who demanded more representation, particularly among top management, in the wake of George Floyd's death.  That, too, we are now learning, was an event that needed more skeptical journalism.  We really do not know whether Floyd really was murdered or whether he died of a combination of heart disease and drugs--the medical examiner's original conclusion.  The angry journalists who confronted Baron wanted the immediate hire of more black editors and refused to wait for vacancies to emerge.  Baron would  have liked to oblige, but as he explains, Bezos and publisher Ryan had adamantly insisted on keeping the editorial staff small.  After Baron left at the end of 2020 the paper reversed itself and did hire a significant number of new editors. 

Baron also brings up another perspective for dealing with such controversies.  Do institutions such as newspapers or universities actually have a higher purpose that is bigger than any individual's interest?  In today's modern world, we might restate that question as follows:  Are objective journalism and objective history really anything but excuses for straight white male privilege?  To that I would answer with a resounding yes--and I would add that impartial principles and higher purposes are the only things that PREVENT institutions from serving the interests of particular groups.  Yes, human nature being what it is, reason, impartiality and objectivity will always struggle with raw emotion--but that battle need not be lost, as well as individuals will still fight it.

One more critical data point, unfortunately, shows that keeping Baron's spirit alive is probably impossible now.  The Post, as I have mentioned, returned to profitability during his editorship, and other major publications did well during those years as well.  That, we can now see, was because Donald Trump was president.  The bitter emotional controversies and the rage that he triggered increased clicks and subscriptions in a way that the actual business of government cannot.  Now the Post is in the red again.  The ideas of rationality and objectivity depend for their survival on a broad commitment to them within the population.  Such a commitment is, I believe the foundation of our legal and political traditions, as well as our journalistic and academic ones.  And that commitment may have been lost.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Slouching towards Bethlehem

Polls show that Donald Trump's decisive victory in the Iowa caucuses will be followed next week by a big victory in New Hampshire as well.  Other polling suggests that his legal problems have broadened and deepened his Republican support, and since any possible conviction over the next ten months will surely be appealed, I don't see how legal processes will stop  him from winning the election.  I have written repeatedly that Trump's nomination and election in 2016 reflected a collapse of American politics, since neither party could find a candidate who could beat hm.  The collapse has continued, and I want to talk about its causes.

Our political class, oddly, is a victim of its own success.  Over the last half century or so it has created a self-perpetuating system, fueled by lax campaign financing laws, gerrymandering (on both sides), better health care for old people, and an alliance with our economic elite.  These factors made incumbents extremely difficult to defeat,  The average age of a Senator first reached 59 in 1990; now it is 64.  In the same period the House average has risen from 51 to 59.  Unlucky losers (and some who simply decide to quit) transition smoothly into very well-paid lobbying positions.  Meanwhile, however, our politicians lost touch with the average voter, who did not believe that they knew or cared how ordinary people were living.  Several major trends in our economy and our life--greater inequality, higher illegal immigration, and poor student performance in our schools--have continued under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.  Meanwhile, with fewer and fewer races actually in play, both Republicans and Democrats have stopped appealing to voters on the other side of the aisle and have become more devoted to their bases.

Chronic voter unhappiness has created a new era in US politics.  In all but one of nine national elections since 2004, either the White House or at least once house of Congress has changed hands.  The Democrats won Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, and the Republicans won the House in 2010.  After a break from the pattern in 2012, the Republicans won the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.  The Democrats won the House back in 2018 and won the White House and the Senate in 2020, only to lose the House again in 2022.  Nothing remotely like this has happened in any earlier era of US politics.  Neither Bush II, nor Obama nor Trump nor Biden have managed to rally a durable majority behind them and create any new national consensus.  The Democrats have not given up on helping the American people.  Obama passed Obamacare, and Biden has passed a major infrastructure bill and a climate bill with major implications--but neither of these measures had much electoral impact because they took so long to come into effect. Obamacare did not actually become available to Americans until 2013, three years after it was passed, and few new infrastructure projects have really gotten going in the last three years. 

Despite Trump's defeat in 2020, he has continued the transformation of the Republican Party into a radical personality cult.  Nearly every Republican officeholder who has spoken out against him has lost their job.  The response among Democrats, however, has been very different. Bernie Sanders in 2016 appealed to the same kind of disaffection on the Democratic side that Trump did on the Republican side, but the Democratic establishment defeated him and handed the nomination to Joe Biden in 2020.  Like Clinton and Obama before him, Biden used congressional majorities to pass some important legislation in his first two years, and then lost the House.  Since 2022 he has made it clear that he will run for re-election on one platform plank: that only he can save democracy from Donald Trump.  The Democratic party's only weapon against Trump seems to be legal action, which has solidified his Republican support on the one hand while moving too slowly actually to stop him on the other. 

And despite our remarkable growth in employment and some victories for American labor, Biden has lost popularity because of the most severe inflation since the 1970s.  Here he has been a victim of establishment thinking, which has assumed since Reagan that inflation would never be a major problem again.  When in 1971 inflation threatened Richard Nixon's re-election, he imposed wage and price controls that lasted for more than two years. The nation appears to have the worst housing shortage since the immediate post-Second World War period, when bipartisan congressional majorities did a great deal to alleviate it, but Biden and the Democrats have made no proposals at all to help the younger generation this time.  The higher Federal Reserve rates imposed to fight inflation have made that situation worse.  Partly as a result, while our political class has gotten older, the younger generation is more and more disaffected from politics.  Youth and minorities are critical parts of the Democratic base, but both are trending away from the Democrats now.  

Trump also destroyed the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in favor of a unique US role in the world that lasted for more than 70 years--but Biden continues down the traditional path in Ukraine, Yemen, and in his blind support of Israel.  Republicans in Congress, following Trump, have now stopped aid to Ukraine, which could lead to a Russian victory in the war.  His administration's insistence that the Israeli government do things it obviously has no intention of doing is becoming a national embarrassment.  The bombing of Yemen threatens a wider conflict.  The Republicans are using the Ukraine issue to try to force Biden to take drastic measures against immigration--but he will apparently do so grudgingly, missing a chance to show a great many voters that he agrees with their concerns.  Trump has given Biden and the Democrats too much self-confidence.  They are so convinced that he must be defeated that they don't understand that they must say and do other things to win the necessary votes.  Everyone seems to know that Vice President Harris is a liability on the ticket, but Biden has no intention of replacing her.  

My new book details how each President has tried to rally the country behind his objectives--and by tha tmeasure, Biden ranks very low.  He has given up the traditional presidential broadcast address on major domestic and foreign issues almost entirely.   When he does give a major address like his Valley Forge speech last week it does not even make the front page of our most important newspapers.  His age is obviously a major concern.  Yet the Democratic establishment chose him and remains committed to him.  The very different system that Biden stepped into as a 30-year old Senator in 1973 is gone, and Donald Trump is the only man to come up with something to replace it--however disastrous that might turn out to be.