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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.


Ed Ciliberti said...

Aloha Doctor,
Tsk, tsk. Such pessimism. But perhaps it is warranted. Given what's happening around the world and, particularly, in the US, perhaps it is warranted. Still, we are finishing up the Crisis and heading into the Climax (Strauss and Howe). And, of course, the Climax is supposed to be something like a "walk through the Valley of Death." On the other side? Well, the post-WWII American experience was not too bad, pretty good, actually. Of course, that was then and this is now. Everyone has lost of new, more-lethal toys now-a-days. Let's hope for the best.
Ed Ciliberti
(A Silent)

Energyflow said...

Trump, as an outsider challenging the system, will be fought tooth and nail by the bureaucracy, the press. So this explains the extreme opposition and attacks on his character. Meanwhile, a person like Hunter runs amok protected by the system as he is a little prince. Trump had to fight hard to win over and convert his own party to his ideas. Only his popularity allowed him to overcome strong opposition. Supposing that in 4 years we have an open field for President. Trump perhaps has won and changed much. Additionally, severe debt and foreign losses have forced the social welfare system and military to go on a severe diet. America's standing is like the UK in the late 40s, 1950s, just another near bankrupt old power to be ignored. A Democrat would emerge to reform the near defunct party, maybe a Bezos self made man type, like Trump, but from the left. Bankrupt, corrupt big cities would need help and so on. He would face a fight, as Trump did from within his own party, to reform the party. Lots of people would have to go. A Peron type of person could emerge. We must consider that in general there will come a time of post imperialism, bankruptcy and the end of the welfare state. This will force much which is now taken for granted to be rethought. States will want to experiment and have more power. Central govt. bureaucracy will be peeled back. Much can be hoped for.

Bruce Wilder said...

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.

I am very disappointed that you would echo such tripe. Radley Balko has been very good on this, writing a very good summary of how biased have been some tendentious accounts circulating among right-wing commentators and propagandists.


Speaking for myself, I think the officers other than Chauvin were unfairly treated, because of a mob justice atmosphere, but that is a different problem.