Category Archives: On Media

Living in a Fox-Limbaugh-Breitbart fantasy

Opinion

By William H. Freivogel

 

Many Americans are living in a fantasy world constructed by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart News and right-wing bloggers.

In this fantasy world:

  1. President Donald Trump has more credibility than James B. Comey, the man he fired as FBI director.
  2. Comey has perjured himself by first testifying he wasn’t ordered to drop any investigation into Trump associates and then testifying last week that Trump asked him to drop the criminal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
  3. It is Comey, not Trump, who committed a crime, leaking his contemporaneous notes of Trump’s request to drop the investigation.
  4. Comey has cleared the president of obstruction of justice.
  5. And then there was the surreal cabinet meeting at which, Trump said he was just about the most successful president in history and his cabinet and staff kowtowed with statements of how blessed they were to work for him.

Now take off those Fox-colored glasses and re-enter the reality.

  1. Comey is a truthteller. Trump has lied more over a short time than any president in history.

Comey – a registered Republican longer than Trump – has lived the life of a straight-arrow lawyer and law enforcement official. As George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general he rushed to John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside to make sure the White House didn’t pressure the ill attorney general to reauthorize a warrantless surveillance program the Justice Department thought was illegal.

In the rare instance where Comey makes a factual mistake in testimony, he quickly corrects the record.

Meanwhile when Trump lies, he refuses to admit it – think Obama wiretap charges.

Most Americans get this. A YouGov poll shows 46 percent of Americans believed Comey was more trustworthy and 26 percent Trump. But in the alternative media universe inhabited by Trump voters, 70 percent thought Trump more trustworthy as compared to 7 percent who believed Comey.

  1. Comey did not lie or perjure himself. That false news story began with right-wing conspiracy theorist, Jack Posobiec, who styles himself a White House correspondent. In the weeks before last fall’s election, it was Posobiec who spread the dangerous nonsense about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of the back rooms of Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C.

This time, Posobiec tweeted that in testimony in early May Comey had “said under oath that Trump did not ask him to halt any investigation.”

Actually, Comey had been asked if “the attorney general or senior officials at the Department of Justice” had ever tried to halt an investigation. He said no. He was not asked if Trump had asked him to halt an investigation. So when he testified last week that the president had asked him to drop the investigation of Flynn, he was not contradicting earlier testimony.

Facts be damned; the Posobiec tweet ricocheted through conservative media. The New York Times traced its path. Breitbart published a story headlined: “Comey Under Oath: ‘Have Not Experienced Any Requests to Stop FBI Investigations.’” GotNews.com, a Trump favorite that has distorted reports on the Russia investigation, upped the ante by suggesting Comey may have perjured himself.

InfoWars, run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, picked up the perjury angle. Jones is the “journalist” who says 9/11 was a U.S. black bag job and that no children died at the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre. Then Limbaugh read the GotNews.com article on air and called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.” And Fox’s Sean Hannity picked up the story, claiming it showed Comey himself had admitted the Trump request to drop the Flynn investigation “never happened.”

  1. Comey did not commit a crime by leaking his notes of the Trump meeting.

Comey acknowledged the leak without hesitation during testimony. This is not an illegal leak, such as revealing classified information. The memo was not classified and did not contain national security secrets. Comey’s leak of the memo is better understood as whistleblowing than leaking.

https://lawfareblog.com/sharing-memos-comey-did-nothing-wrong-former-official-and-everything-right-whistleblower

  1. Comey never said Trump was not under investigation for obstruction of justice.

On last Sunday’s “This Week” program, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, who moonlights as a Fox legal analyst, challenged the credibility of Comey and Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III and baldly asserted “it was made very clear from the FBI director on multiple occasions that the president had not been and was not under investigation for obstruction of justice.”

In fact it wasn’t clear or even implied. Comey declined to make a conclusion about obstruction of justice, properly leaving that legal judgment to Mueller. “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the President was an effort to obstruct,” he testified. “I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense.”

Comey said he had leaked his memo to trigger the appointment of a special counsel. So the gist of Comey’s testimony was the opposite of Sekulow’s claim. Rather than saying the president is not under investigation for obstruction, Comey made it clear he thought the act was so disturbing that there needed to be a special counsel to investigate the president on possible obstruction. In other words, even though the White House ballyhooed the claim that Comey had cleared Trump, Comey’s testimony strongly suggest Mueller is investigating the president for possible obstruction.

As former Watergate prosecutor Philip Allen Lacovara wrote in the Washington Post, “Any experienced prosecutor would see….a prima facie case of obstruction of justice.”

Trump puts Comey’s job in play, demands loyalty, repeatedly asks him to remove the cloud of the Russia investigation, asks him to drop the Flynn criminal investigation, reportedly asks intelligence chiefs to intervene with Comey, fires Comey because of the Russia investigation and tells the Russians the firing relieves the pressure of the investigation.

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who is Fox’s favorite commentator of late, claims the president can shut down any investigation he wants and can fire anybody he wants because he is totally in charge of the executive branch. This may have been the case before Watergate, but the Supreme Court rejected that view in 1988 in saying it was not “so central to the functioning of the executive Branch” for the president to be able to torpedo investigations of himself and aides. https://lawfareblog.com/view-supreme-court-alan-dershowitz-wrong-about-powers-president

  1. A cabinet meeting like no other.

The most surreal moment of the week, however, was not the made up charges of the right-wing media, but rather the actual video of Trump’s first full cabinet meeting.

The president who has yet to get a major bill through the GOP Congress, bragged “Never has there been a president, with few exceptions…who has passed more legislation….” As cabinet and staff heaped praise on Trump, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s comment stood out as he thanked Trump for “the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.”

In the real world, one of those blessings was Trump’s reported ultimatum that Priebus had until July 4 to clean up the White House’s dysfunctional staff. http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/11/donald-trump-reince-priebus-deadline-239411

 

Trump, twitter, transparency and trouble

Commentary

by William H. Freivogel

During the presidential election, critics of the media maintained the press paid too much attention to Donald Trump’s tweets. Focusing on the tweets let Trump set the day’s news agenda and gave him oodles of free coverage, the critics said.

Five months into Trump’s presidency it is the president’s lawyers, spokespeople, diplomats and other White House aides who wish the president would pipe down.

But Trump won’t be silenced. Even though it is his aides telling him to limit his tweets, Trump blames his usual foil for trying to shut him up – the dishonest mainstream media. “The FAKE MSM is working so hard to get me not to use Social Media,” he tweeted this week. “They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.” Trump also points out he wouldn’t have won the election without his tweets reaching tens of millions of people.

But winning the election is one thing. Running the world’s leading democracy and most powerful country is another.

Some of the biggest controversies and setbacks of the Trump presidency trace back to Trump tweets – the false claim that President Obama tapped Trump Tower, his warning to fired FBI director James Comey there might be tapes of their conversations and his insistence that his executive order is a travel ban even though his lawyers have labored assiduously to say it isn’t.

Kellyanne Conway blamed the media this week for “this obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.”

Conway had reason to be in a bad mood. Her husband George, a well-know conservative lawyer, criticized the president’s tweet on the travel ban in a tweet of his own. Conway said Trump’s tweet won’t help “get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters. Sad.”

Many legal observers thought the conservative majority on the Supreme Court would be more inclined than lower courts to buy the administration argument that judges should consider only the four corners of the executive order rather than looking at Trump’s statements as a presidential candidate. But it’s hard not to look at the words Trump is writing today about the intention to impose a travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries.

The White House had conflicting guidance on whether the tweets are official policy. Sebastian Gorka, a senior White House national security official, told CNN that “It’s not policy. It’s social media.” But press spokesman Sean Spicer said the tweets were official statements.

Trump’s tweet war was a world war by mid-week as he repeatedly misquoted and insulted the mayor of London after terrorists attacked his city. And Trump took credit for Saudi Arabia’s move to close the border to Qatar, even though his secretary of state had said he wanted to mediate the dispute.

Trump even may live tweet his criticism of Comey’s testimony on Thursday, a prospect that must give his lawyers indigestion. Trump might have had a decent argument to block Comey’s testimony based on executive privilege, but for his tweets and public statements about his discussions with Comey. Those comments waived any privilege that might have existed.

One could argue that the public and the media should be happy. No other president has been so open about what he is thinking in real time. Isn’t transparency what we’re always demanding? And don’t we want the president to speak directly to the American people?

Also, it seems Trump occasionally commits truth in his tweets – or what he thinks is true, often an entirely different matter. If Trump’s tweets were vetted by his lawyers and his diplomats, we never would have seen the tweets about Comey or the Russia investigation or the mayor of London.

And there’s the entertainment value. The tweets amuse loyal supporters, serve up delicious outrage to opponents and provide wonderful late night comedy.

Still, this is no way to form policy and run a government. It is chaotic and makes the United States a laughing stock. All the world can see that the one thing that animates the most powerful man in the world is to always be the center of attention. Trump would be more effective if he got a little more sleep and stayed off the 8 a.m. twitter cycle.

University Honors for ‘All American’ Journalist: Bill McClellan

by Michael D. Murray

 

photo by Courtesy August H. Jennewein, University of Missouri-St. Louis

photo by Courtesy August H. Jennewein, University of Missouri-St. Louis

“St. Louis Post-Dispatch” Columnist, Bill McClellan, received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Saturday, May 13, at University of Missouri-St. Louis Commencement ceremonies held on campus in the Mark Twain Gym. He was introduced by UM Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor, Mike Murray, on behalf of the faculty.

“I am very proud to introduce St. Louis’ legendary columnist and television panelist, Bill McClellan. Many of you already know Bill because you have read his columns for many years. He is also the author of books — including collections of his columns and known as a founder and panelist for one of TV’s best local public affairs programs, ‘Donnybrook.’ Bill’s late friend and former boss, Martin Duggan, once said ‘Bill has a greater grasp of the human comedy than anyone who has ever written in – or about – St. Louis.’ We agree.

A friend of mine once edited a series of reference books about important writers. And he asked some of us for names of influential columnists from our region to include in one of the books. I had a bunch of Bill McClellan’s columns taped to my door. So I just folded them-up and sent them to my friend. His response was: ‘This is a perfect example of what we are looking for in this reference book — someone who writes about their community … and the entire community benefits.’ ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘most of these columns are really funny.’

In your Commencement program Bill’s biography states: ‘Like St. Louis, McClellan has proven to be a character to whom people relate fondly.’ We agree – Bill is ‘a character.’ And we know that heaping high praise on such ‘a character’ can be a tricky business. But in the tradition of the great Missouri writers — like Dr. Mark Twain — or the soon-to-be, Dr. Bill — even if we don’t always agree with such “characters,” we still greatly admire their work and recognize their talent.

We also know that nobody knows a ‘character’ like their spouse. So, it’s also a pleasure to recognize Bill’s wife, Mary, who is also here with us today. Bill and Mary have two children, Lorna and Jack.  Lorna is married to alumnus, Darryl Sanchez.

Many of you know Bill as a master storyteller. He has written crime stories, love stories, stories of injustice and unexpected kindnesses. He meets the classic definition of an ‘All American’ journalist because he is someone who “comforts the afflicted — and afflicts the comfortable,” writing about lack of fairness for people who have had to struggle in life – and calling-out and even mocking some of the folks he has referred to as the ‘born-wells” and the “married-wells.’ Some of you might recognize yourself in that and you know who you are. And because of this, to some of these very fortunate folks, at least, he might be considered a TOTAL trouble-maker — but not to us. To us, Bill is simply a very talented communicator – one with a really great sense of humor.

And whatever he’s doing, he keeps that sense of humor. On TV each week, he and his media veterans dissect the local news and then take phone calls. Someone named ‘Bob from Brentwood’ might call-in. The caller will comment on something serious from the program and then ask: ‘Bill, you remember me?’ Bill always remembers them. Another time ‘Bob from Brentwood’ might call back — but this time showing signs of being very irritated or annoyed. Bill is an expert in getting agitated callers to calm themselves down.  But he always does it very gently. He will frown and then repeat their name — usually three times, like: ‘Bob, Bob, Bob.’ He appears to be reaching-out across the airwaves to comfort “Bob from Brentwood” to get him to cool-off a little.  This takes talent — and a certain temperament.

I have to say that this is actually the second time that I have had the honor of introducing Bill. We have a Great Speakers’ series here at the University and a few years ago, I was asked to introduce Bill for a talk he was giving entitled ‘Characters I Have Known.’ I discovered then that Bill is not only a ‘Character’ – he also KNOWS a lot of characters. And many of them showed-up for his talk at that time. And as he started describing them, they began shouting back at him. He described the founders of St. Louis as lacking in the ambition to keep moving westward. These characters would shout back at him: ‘You’re SO right, Bill.’

It was very funny to get their read on what Bill had written and then was repeating — about them. Later, colleagues in our Communication Department asked how that talk went. I said: ‘It WAS really different … but also interesting … because Bill seemed to know all these characters … and they definitely knew him.’

In spite of his status and familiarity with many St. Louisans, Bill is always low-key — and also self-effacing. Reflecting on his career, he was once asked, ‘In the end … what difference does it all really make?’ And about that era some folks are known to love — high school — Bill said: ‘You know the Pretty women and the high-school athletes go through life with an easy self-confidence. People like me … we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. I’m always ready to get thrown-out.’ With that in mind, we say THANKS Bill!  Thanks to an All-American Journalist, the one with a big chip on his shoulder, one that’s provided a unique perspective.

Because there is something ‘All-American’ about someone who speaks-up for the ‘little guy’ and underdog; or if needed, someone who can speak-up to authority; and articulate the concerns of people who aren’t able to do that for themselves. The University faculty is very proud to present an honorary doctorate to ‘A Real Character,’ and a most distinguished, ‘All-American’ journalist — Bill McClellan.”

Tweets, leaks and the truth about Trump

Commentary

by William H. Freivogel

President Donald J. Trump is playing his supporters for patsies. The First Amendment protects Trump’s lies to his Twitter followers, but it also protects the leaked stories that reveal them.

Trump calls the burgeoning investigation of Russia’s interference in the presidential election “fake news” and a “witch hunt,” even as the investigation threatens his presidency.

He calls the Washington Post and New York Times “fake news” organizations, when they are among the nation’s best journalists and have provided the most accurate picture of what is happening in his White House.

Trump calls his trip to the Middle East and Russia a “homerun,” even though he alienated the most important elected leader on the European continent.

A spokeswoman speaks adoringly of a president who has “a magnetic personality….brilliant with a great sense of humor,” while press accounts describe an angry president lashing out at his aides,

Trump brags about draining the swamp while he appoints record numbers of billionaires and Wall Street insiders.

Trump promises health care for everyone but pushes a bill that takes it away from 23 million Americans and gives millionaires $600 billion in tax breaks.

Trump claims he would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal aliens hadn’t voted for Clinton, yet still has nothing to prove it.

Fox News, often Trump’s propaganda arm, discloses the Seth Rich conspiracy theory that the Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered because he – rather than the Russians – leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Fox eventually retracted the story, but its leading pundit, Sean Hannity, is retracting nothing.

While the Times is disclosing Trump relayed “code word” intelligence to the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office, Breitbart headlines the bogus Seth Rich conspiracy, criticizing “Silence from Establishment Media over Seth Rich WikiLeaks Report.”

Trump says the big story is the leaks to the press, which his Homeland Security chief John Kelly calls “darn close to treason.” But without the leaks Americans wouldn’t know of Trump’s leak to the Russians, or Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador, or Jared Kushner’s attempt to set up a back channel to Putin on Russian diplomatic facilities or Trump’s request of former FBI Director James Comey to ease off the investigation of Flynn.

British Prime Minister Theresa May had every reason last week to be upset that information about the Manchester terrorism attack was leaked to American media, including the New York Times. She is right that British intelligence has to be able to count on American intelligence to protect secrets. Trump’s call for an investigation of the leaks was appropriate.

But America is not Britain. We have the First Amendment and Britain has the Official Secrets Act.

In Britain, the government can stop the media from publishing top secret information. In the United States the government almost never can stop publication.

That is the lesson of the 1971 Pentagon Papers case when President Nixon tried to stop the New York Times’ publication of stories based on the 40-volume secret history of the Vietnam War showing presidents had lied to the American people. Our government can only stop publication where there is “direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people.”

Presidents have made audacious claims of harm from leaks. Nixon claimed thousands more Americans would be killed in Vietnam. President George W. Bush told Times’ editors in the White House that the blood would be on their hands if they disclosed that the National Security Agency was tapping Americans’ conversations without a warrant. President Barack Obama’s administration claimed NSA meta-data collection revealed by Edward Snowden was instrumental in combating 50-plus terrorism attacks.

None of those things happened. Nixon’s solicitor general, Erwin Griswold, admitted later that the Pentagon Papers harmed no one. No terrorist attacks are linked to the revelation of the Bush era wiretaps. And close analysis showed the NSA programs revealed by Snowden had not thwarted terrorist attacks.

Rather than causing harm, these disclosures helped the nation come to grips with the mistakes of the Vietnam War and the excesses of government surveillance.

This isn’t to say that journalists should disclose every secret. Reputable news organizations like the Times and Post contact top government officials before publication and withhold details that could pose harm. But the final decision on publication must remain with the editors, not the officials. That’s what the First Amendment commands.

What the First Amendment cannot command is that our public officials or our media always tell the truth.

Breitbart and Hannity can claim without proof that Seth Rich was murdered for supposedly providing the hacked DNC emails to WikiLeaks. It’s up to the much-maligned mainstream media (MSM) and the people to hold up those claims to the facts and the unanimous judgment of Western intelligence that it was the Russians who provided the hacked information. There is no more evidence of a Democrat assassin than there is of those fraudulent voters in the last election or of President Obama ordering Trump Tower tapped or of Hillary Clinton’s mythical child sex ring at Comet Pizza.   http://www.billofrights225.com/the-presss-identity-crisis/

Trump can claim the Times, Post and other reputable media are purveyors of Fake News. It’s his First Amendment right. But when asked for proof, the White House produces only a couple of quickly corrected reportorial errors on the Martin Luther King bust and Trump’s earpiece for listening to a translation. The substantive disclosures reported by the Times, Post and others have not been rebutted.

Ironically, Trump is almost as likely commit truth in his Twitter outbursts as to lie. He acknowledged thinking about the Russia investigation at the time he fired Comey – an act that could be part of a case of obstruction of justice. No longer does there have to be evidence of Trump collusion with the Russians in the election espionage. It’s enough to prove Trump tried to quash the Russia investigation. No one proved Nixon knew of the Watergate burglary, just that he covered up.

Congress, the professional press and Special Counsel Robert Mueller have many months of important work ahead to find the facts and determine if crimes or impeachable offenses were committed. The final verdict, however, will rest with the people whom the president is playing for patsies.

Legacy newspapers still dominate democracy on digital frontier

By William H. Freivogel

The title of the conference in Mountain View, Calif., was Legal Frontiers in Digital Media, convened appropriately at the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley. But every few hours during its sessions last week, the crown jewels of legacy media, The New York Times and the Washington Post, published bulletins with new disclosures about President Trump.

  • Trump told Russians that firing ‘nut job’ Comey eased pressure from investigation — Times
  • FBI investigates close Trump White House adviser as person of interest as the Russia investigation ramps up — Post
  • Comey practiced how to keep Trump at bay during meetings, worried president wouldn’t respect legal and ethical boundaries — Post
  • Comey to testify publicly — Times and Post

Sure, these bulletins came into the conference on phone apps. No one waited for the next day’s newspaper. But it was impossible to miss the anachronism of legacy newspapers driving the nation’s biggest story the way the Times drove the Pentagon Papers and the Post drove Watergate almost half a century ago.

However, this time everything was in hyperdrive, with bulletins arriving on cell phone screens a few minutes or hours apart. Instead of the day-long news cycle, there was a new deadline every second. Sometimes the Times would have a bulletin and an hour later the Post would match it or top it. Or the Post would have the disclosure and the Times would match it.

This doesn’t mean media are going back to the old days. But it is a reminder of how important it is for legacy news organizations to find ways to sustain the big, professional news staffs that have connections with top government officials and can bring in scoops. For the time being, the jump in digital subscribers at the Times and the infusion of Jeff Bezos’ money at the Post have reinforced the power of those newsrooms.

Still, today’s media bear only a passing resemblance to the media of the Watergate days. Presenters at the Legal Frontiers conference weren’t lawyers for the Times or the Post, but from Google, Twitter and Facebook.

And the legal and moral questions they addressed were uniquely 21st century issues.

  • If a person has a gun to his head on Facebook Live or Periscope, what should the internet companies do? Cut the feed to protect viewers from the trauma or keep the feed going in hopes users can talk him down? “We leave livestreams up as long as we thing there is a chance of engagement,” says Facebook’s Monika Bickert.
  • When should hateful posts be taken down because they are calls for terrorist acts and when are they merely extreme commentary on the state of the world worthy of continued publication and debate?
  • Should a website called ModelMayhem — “where professional models meet model photographers” — be responsible for sex predators using the site to pose as photographers to lure young children to Florida for sexual exploitation?
  • When is Backpage responsible for sex trafficking resulting from its classified ads?
  • What should Twitter and Facebook do about the silos of truly fake news centered around InfoWars and Breitbart? Brittan Heller of the Anti-Defamation League said its year-long study from 2015 to 2016 found the universe of online accounts spreading fake news and attacking journalists was relatively small and self-described as supporting white nationalism, America and Trump.
  • Should a U.S. contractor shot by ISIS in Jordan be able to collect damages from Twitter, which had to know that ISIS fighters were instigating violence against Americans with their tweets?
  • Must U.S. law enforcement officials go through difficult international channels to get information for a terrorism investigation when that information is probably in a computer in Mountain View?
  • Are European countries conducting a war on U.S. technology companies such as Google and Facebook by trying to enforce European values on U.S. firms — values like the “right to be forgotten” and laws against hate speech. How should the U.S. platforms react when European rulings or laws collide with First Amendment values?

The clash between the dominant European view of privacy and America’s First Amendment values is one between different views of democracy, said Jonathan Kanter, a Washington antitrust D.C. lawyer.

“From the perspective of Europeans it is a desire to protect democracy not damage it…. There is a disconnect between us and Europe on privacy and speech. Privacy is the essence of freedom in Europe. Europe is concerned about private companies (such as Google) making decisions, but we feel competition is essential to democracy.”

Robert Post, the retiring dean of the Yale Law School, agrees that democracy is at stake. “If each person could control information about them in the public sphere, we could not have a democracy,” he said.

Representatives of Twitter and Facebook described elaborate outreach efforts they have made to counteract hate speech with positive speech. These included organizing 80 civil society groups in Germany to promote positive speech. In the U.S., Facebook is working with university faculties to train students on how to use Facebook to counter extremism in their communities.

Post said Google should be treated like a newspaper, not as some private entity outside the public sphere. He quoted the famous French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville, who wrote in “Democracy in America,” that “nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.”

Last week, that 19th century wisdom never seemed truer as the two great U.S. newspapers of the 20th century delivered breaking stories every few hours over their 21st century platforms. Each disclosure dropped into the minds of millions of Americans and each will have an impact on the way voters and their elected representatives view the days ahead in this troubled democracy.

Confidential source stories check presidential abuse of power

Commentary

by William H. Freivogel

Confidential sources are the lifeblood of reporting about abuses of power by high government officials. Source reporting provides a vital check on presidential power.

If the Washington Post hadn’t relied on confidential sources to report about Michael Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador, Flynn might still be the National Security Adviser. President Trump had known about the discussions for two weeks but fired Flynn only after the public disclosure in a source story.

If the Washington Post hadn’t relied on Deep Throat – Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI – President Nixon’s Watergate abuses of power might never have been fully disclosed.

So this week, the Post acted properly in reporting the information from unnamed “current and former U.S. officials” that Trump had jeopardized an important intelligence source providing information about ISIS. In a boast, Trump reportedly disclosed to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador the city in the Islamic State from which an allied intelligence agency was getting this “code word” intelligence.

And The New York Times acted properly this week in relying on an unnamed source who read them a memo written by fired FBI Director James Comey describing how Trump asked him to shut down the FBI investigation of Flynn.

It is in the public interest for the American people to know how carelessly the president is handling top secret information. It is in the public interest for people to know that Trump may have taken steps to obstruct justice.

The stories are two of many disclosures from confidential sources that have painted a vivid picture of a president out of control. The unnamed sources took extraordinary risks in providing the information to the Post because they may be committing a crime.

This doesn’t mean that all confidential leaks are good. The Bush administration leak that Valerie Plame was a spy did not blow the whistle on wrongdoing by the powerful – it was the powerful trying to punish the whistleblower – in this instance, Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson who debunked President Bush’s false State of the Union claim about Saddam Hussein getting yellow cake uranium from Niger.

Nor were Judith Miller’s stories about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – sourced to unnamed government officials – in the public interest. They primed the pump for war.

And more recently, the publication by WikiLeaks of secrets apparently hacked by Russian intelligence from the Democratic National Committee helped our major adversary destabilize our presidential election. Russian agents stealing secrets online is worse than former CIA agents burglarizing the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate.

Journalism ethics properly urge news organizations to try to get information on the record. But when writing about secrets or the powerful, that’s difficult. Prominent whistle blowers whose identities became known – Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden – were charged with espionage for their leaks – even though the Pentagon Papers and NSA data-mining leaks were in the national interest.

Publishing national security secrets is one of the ways in which the press checks the power of the modern presidency. Justice Potter Stewart said as much in the Pentagon Papers decision opening the way for publication of the top-secret history of the Vietnam War. Stewart wrote: “In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For, without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people.”

The notion that an alert, aware and free press helps create an enlightened citizenry may seem old-fashioned these days when partisans and the president label news they don’t like fake news. But the professional press’ role in informing the people has seldom been more important.

 

From Deep Throat to WikiLeaks

 

Publishing national security secrets

Trump’s explanation of Comey firing provides ultimate test of press’ fairness and truthfulness

by William H. Freivogel

President Trump’s entire presidency, his entire political career in fact, has provided the severest test to the mainstream media’s mission of presenting the news fairly and in context.  No previous president, not even Nixon, has lied so frequently and campaigned so vigorously to delegitimize mainstream journalism.

But Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey provided the toughest challenge yet for journalists trying to be objective while still reporting the truth.  The reason: The White House’s official explanation of Comey’s firing is almost certainly not the real explanation.

The official explanation by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein might have made sense if issued last July.  Rosenstein based his recommendation on Comey’s announcement that the FBI didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her email indiscretions.  Rosenstein is right in saying this generally is not the FBI’s job.  The FBI investigates and submits its findings to lawyers in the Justice Department who make the decision on prosecution. Comey, who himself was once deputy attorney general, took on the role of making the decision because Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she would accept his judgment and that of career prosecutors after Bill Clinton’s foolish visit to her on an airplane during the campaign.  It is debatable whether Comey should have made the final decision or whether he should have submitted the evidence to the highest ranking Justice Department official not conflicted.  Probably he should have done the latter.

But when the decision to fire Comey comes 10 months later, in the middle of the FBI’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election, the press could hardly report Rosenstein’s explanation and leave it at that.  Every journalistic instinct tells reporters and editors – and probably most Americans – that Trump fired Comey because the FBI director was ramping up the Russia investigation, which Trump claims is fake news propagated by fake news outlets like The New York Times.  (There are echoes of “third rate burglary” in those Trump tweets.)

Charles Krauthammer, the conservative analyst on Fox, remarked on the implausibility of Trump’s explanation.  “Here is what is so odd about it. This is about, according to the letter by the Deputy Attorney General,… something that occurred on July 5. So we start out with something that is highly implausible. If that was so offensive to the Trump administration, What you would have done, in the transition, you would have spoken with Comey and said we are going to let you go. That’s when a president could very easily make a decision to have a change. That’s not unprecedented. But to fire him summarily with no warning in the middle of May because of something that happened in July is almost inexplicable. Second, the reason ostensibly is, as you read in the letter, for doing something that you are not supposed to do, to usurp the Attorney General. Second, to release all the information which was damaging to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s opponent. Do we really believe that Donald Trump come after all these months, decided suddenly he had to fire this guy because he damaged Hillary back in July? Another implausible conjecture….”

Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, put it this way: “In an ingenious bit of Machiavellian jujitsu, Trump fired Comey for incompetence, simultaneously: (1) eliminating an independent official who might act as a check on illegal behavior, (2) paving the way for the appointment of a stooge, and (3) enhancing Trump’s tough-guy image.”

Is this a replay of the Saturday Night Massacre? There are ways to distinguish Trump’s action from Nixon’s.  But there is a fundamental similarity: In each case the president moved to fire the law enforcement official who posed the greatest danger to his presidency.

Print journalism: don’t erect the tombstones just yet

by Don Corrigan

The “print is dead” mantra has been around for some two decades. That message was brought home to me as a professor at Webster University in St. Louis when my journalism department met to hire a new professor in social media. Also on the agenda were revisions to the curriculum for journalism majors.    Those revisions were needed to better reflect the inevitable move to digital technology in delivering journalism. When I protested that it might be too early to write off print newspapers, despite the encroaching new technologies, a colleague upbraided me severely. He supposedly was just trying to help me get it through my thick skull that we had entered a new media paradigm.

“Don, I like print journalism as much as you do. I used to enjoy getting up in the morning and reading a newspaper with my coffee, but it’s over. I can get it all online now. Print is dead,” he scolded, hammering his fist on his desk to drive the point home. When I tried to debate the issue further, I received some sympathetic glances from other colleagues – the kind of glances reserved for grandma as she tries to hold onto a few keepsakes before being moved from her old home to the retirement center.

I soon stepped down from advising the college student newspaper, the Journal. The departure turned out to be a great excuse for a 2010 retirement party – an old-school happening for an old-school journalist. Rather than leave journalism tutelage altogether, though, I continued to teach media law and started an outdoor/environmental journalism certificate. As for the revised journalism major, two of my favorite required legacy courses were summarily jettisoned: History and Principles of Journalism and Community Reporting. My work down the street from the university at Webster-Kirkwood Times, Inc., publisher of three local newspapers, had been serving as a great resource and inspiration for teaching about covering communities as well as about print journalism operations.

Alas, the “buggy-whip factory” known as Webster-Kirkwood Times continues to prosper to this day. And now, almost a decade after I had to confront the reality that “print is dead,” comes an article in Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) that insists print is not dead with a subhead entitled, “The Revenge of the Real.” The article in the 2016 fall-winter issue notes that it may actually be digital that is dying on the electronic vine after years of newspapers trying to find a business model that will make digital news profitable, or at least self-supporting. According to the CJR article by Michael Rosenwald, digital may be working for a few large national newspapers, but for regional newspaper businesses all the Facebook, tweets, apps and websites are a bust. In the future, digital may just involve “add-ons” for the base print products, included as a benefit for readers, but definitely not “profit centers” meant to sustain the franchise.

As the 2016 CJR article notes: “The reality is this: No streamlined website, no ‘vertical integration,’ no social network, no algorithm, no Apple, no Apple Newsstand, no paywall, no soft paywall, no targeted ad, no mobile-first strategy has come close to matching the success of print in revenue or readership. And the most crucial assumption publishers have made about readers, particularly millennials – that they prefer the immediacy of digital – now seems questionable, too.”

CJR goes on to quote Iris Chyi, a University of Texas professor and new media researcher. Chyi observes: “The (supposedly dying) print edition still outperforms the (supposedly hopeful) digital product by almost every standard, be it readership, engagement, advertising revenue, and especially willingness to actually pay for the product.” Chyi examined data collected by Scarborough, a market research firm owned by Nielsen, for the 51 largest U.S. newspapers, finding that the print edition reaches 28 percent of circulation areas, while the digital version reaches just 10 percent. (And it is a business model that still pays the bills, including salaries.)

‘Thriving’ print

There’s no question that the big guys in the newspaper world have been weathering tumultuous times. Some have been saddled with debt from acquisitions made when newspapers were at their peak. Others have more recently been sold at bargain basement prices to new owners without journalism backgrounds. Many of these owners have continued to hack away at the print product; continued to cut remaining staffers; and, continued to put resources into digital platforms that have yet to produce significant revenue after years of experimentation with pop-up ads, paywalls and digital-first strategies. It’s a formula that has failed to stop the decline in readers and loss of circulation. The trade and general media focus on these “big troubles” at big newspapers has obscured the fact that print as a whole is thriving.

“Far too much emphasis has been placed on digital and national media,” said Tim Bingaman, president and CEO of Circulation Verification Council (CVC). “And very few companies have been able to produce meaningful regional or local editorial content on a digital platform and monetize it for significant profit.  However, local and niche print continues to be very profitable.  Interestingly, much of the digital content we analyze is actually sourced back to traditional media sources.  Much like radio stations were famous for reading the newspaper as their news content, we see the same thing in the digital world (where original print stories now become the content). Print is not dead.”

Bingaman and other industry observers note that people need to keep in mind that 97 percent of all U.S. newspapers have circulations below 50,000, and about 85 percent of all newspapers are weeklies. Collectively, the “community newspaper” sector accounts for more than 70 percent of total print newspaper circulation in the U.S. and 97 percent of newspaper titles. Two-thirds of U.S. weeklies have circulations below 10,000 (as do 45 percent of U.S. dailies). Any analysis of the “newspaper industry” that overlooks the community-newspaper sector, especially the weekly newspaper sector, is going to be inherently flawed and grossly misleading. And analysis that overlooks 97 percent of newspapers may miss the fact that print is holding its own and in many sectors is actually thriving.

“Trends vary greatly depending on the type of print measured,” said Bingaman.  “Daily newspapers and large national consumer magazines continue to lose significant print circulation and those losses receive a majority of the attention in the media industry.  However, a much larger segment of print – community newspapers, shoppers, city & regional magazines, business publications, and niche publications like parenting, 50+ lifestyle, ethnic, and special interest publications are thriving and have very stable or even growing circulation numbers.

“For instance, community newspapers, typically free weeklies, have lost less than 1 percent of their circulation in the last decade.  City and regional magazines, and business publications have also fared the poor economy well with less than 2 percent circulation loss.  Most of these losses come from publishers simply trimming expenses on less valued circulation types.  Niche publications have fared well overall with a 1.5 percent circulation increase in the last decade.  The most important item I take from these numbers is that intensely local community based print is thriving. The ‘print is dying’ message is so prevalent because of the high profile of major losses from large metropolitan daily newspapers and national consumer magazines,” Bingaman stressed.

Guy Bergstrom, a writer for About.comMarketing, continually declares,  “Don’t Believe the Hype: Newspapers Are Alive and Kicking.” Community papers have negotiated the new digital era and America’s economic downturn quite well. Newspaper trade organizations such as the Independent Free Papers of America (IFPA), the National Newspaper Association (NNA) and the Inland Press Association (IPA) are all working to get that message out to readers and advertisers: “We’re Just Fine And We’re Not Going Away.” These groups say it’s vital to get this information out, because the drumbeat about the demise of print can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if not countered.

                            READOUT: Is digital “dying”?

Perhaps newspaper trade groups need to go on the offensive and declare: “digital is dying.” There’s plenty of evidence for such a new mantra on digital. A number of attempts have been made to challenge the dominance of the hyper-local, print fare of community newspapers with internet products, foremost among the challengers is AOL’s Patch sites, which have practically disappeared after losing tens of millions of dollars. Jock Lauterer, a community journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, makes the important point that print newspapers are retro and after a day of working in front of video screens all day, many readers want a return to retro. They want “the old portable, clippable, hold-and-fold legacy media,” according to Lauterer.

Digital news advocates and the so-called “technological utopians” will argue that print does not have a future because the kids are all on their smart phones and many don’t know what a print newspaper looks like – they regard it as a relic of some bygone era. Bingaman of CVC insists that young people may rely on smart phones now for information, but they will take up the dependable print newspaper habits once they settle down in a community and want to know what is going on in their schools and at the city council. Bingaman said CVC has the data to prove his contention.

“In 1999 CVC audited 516 community newspapers and shoppers in North America.  In 2016 we audited 2,976 papers and 463 of those original publications are still with us from 1999. In 1999, 7 percent of their audience was made of readers under the age of 25.  In 2016, that number for those same 463 papers is 6 percent. The under-25 age category has never been a large consumer of print, and never will be,” Bingaman said. “However, for community-based publications, young people begin to read these publications as they become involved in their communities.”

“As they buy cars, get married, buy homes, and have children they are drawn into reading about their community,” Bingaman continued.  “In 1999, 17 percent of readers were between the ages of 25-34. In 2016, that 25-34 demographic is 18 percent. This leads me to believe that community-based publications continue to replace their aging demographic with a young audience as they have in previous decades.  As a matter of fact, readership of community-based publications has increased from 74 percent in 1999 to 77 percent in 2016.  Overall, a larger percentage of households are reading this form of print than they were in 1999.”

Bingaman is echoed by Bill Reader, an associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and a longtime member of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper editors (ISWNE). Reader said millennials may be digital natives who prefer digital delivery when available, but they are not as print-averse as many media experts would have us believe. Offer them a good print product, and they’ll pick it up.

“The best model for reaching young people today is digital-only for routine daily news, sports scores, and other ‘hot news’ items,” said Reader. “However, they will use higher-quality print news offerings for long-form reporting, analysis, and opinion. Special sections are still going to thrive in print with young people, if they are done well. Getting a new generation of talented, trustworthy journalists to embrace and work on community newspapers will be the key for the print future.”

No one makes a stronger case that print newspapers are in the catbird’s seat, while digital is dying as a sustainable news technology, than Iris Chyi, who is heavily quoted in the 2016 CJR article. In her 2015 monograph, “Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggles toward Inferiority,” Chyi provides plenty of data to show that digital news products have fallen far short of expectations. Companies that hoped to move their news content from print to only online during the past two decades are finding that 85 to 90 percent of their revenue still flows from the old, legacy print product.

The problem is that most assumptions on the all-digital future have never had any reliable empirical support, according to Chyi. The result is that during almost two decades of trial and error, bad decisions were made and unfounded strategies adopted. The audiences for news were totally misunderstood and the original print product deteriorated through all the attention and experimentation with digital products that no one would pay good money for. Part of the problem is readers viewed the digital products as available, but inferior. And they were conditioned not to pay for them.

In the conclusion of her study, Chyi contends that newspaper managements have been wandering in “a digital jungle” for 20 years with no sense of direction, doing what everyone else is doing rather than doing what is best for the print newspaper, the anchor for their operations. She offers newspaper managers a number of directions for finding the way out of the confusing and unprofitable digital jungle. Among her points:

  • Accept the fact that online display ads are not effective and may never be very effective, no matter how obnoxious and annoying newspaper businesses make them.
  • Acknowledge that print newspapers don‘t have to die, unless they are mismanaged or ignored for the new shiny things out there. In many communities, readers still will pay $300 to $500 a year for the “dead tree” format.
  • Realize that consumers view the digital news product as inferior, much like fast food or ramen noodles. Not many are interested in actually paying for digital news products.
  • Concede local newspapers are never going to benefit from the economies of distribution of a Google or a Yahoo operation. Chasing readers with multiple platforms will wear down your journalists, erode your print product, and can be a waste of valuable resources.

READOUT: Academics need to be more responsible

Chyi argues that newspaper owners need to listen to their managers, editors and reporters who increasingly lament: “All the effort that is going into the website is hurting the print edition. Could we just not do it?” She insists that newspaper owners, who get upset looking at all the young digital natives on their mobiles, need to realize that they are using their phones for entertainment and not for news. To retain or attract younger readers, newspapers need to focus on noteworthy and essential content – and not fret about the means of distribution.

Chyi and other media observers, such as Marc Edge, author of ‘Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers,” have clearly seen the beacon of light through the dense digital jungle. To use another such metaphor, they can see the forest through the trees, and they can actually see that the dead-tree media still prosper. Newspapers have an important place in the media mix when not burdened with all the illusions about their supposedly inevitable digital future.

Journalism academics can be forgiven if they have fallen under the spell of the digital utopians. Academics generally are not “bottom line people” who worry about the business model as they embrace and explore the new media technologies. Also, journalism academics are continually attending webinars, seminars and conferences where the media high priests preach the gospel of digital distribution. At the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conventions, I’ve listened to the experts tell us for years that if news companies were not on a website within two years, they would die. Five years ago, I listened to the experts tell us that if news companies were not on mobiles within two years, they would die. In both presentations, I asked the experts what the business model is for these platforms. The answer in both instances: “The business model will come. The important thing is that you have to be there when it arrives.”

Obviously, journalism academics are as lost in the digital jungle as are many newspaper managers. They’ve all been warned over and over about the coming print apocalypse lurking out there in the bush, but it has yet to materialize. So what should academics be telling their journalism students? Tim Bingaman of CVC suggests that courses in the new media should not discount the old media. A course in history and principles of journalism should show students that newspapers survived radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, and now the Internet with the arrival of a new century.

Rem Reader at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University believes that far too much journalism instruction ignores or is dismissive of the community press. Journalism students who are not exposed to the community press are often surprised to learn about the diversity of local and niche media that exists today, the important roles they play in society – and the jobs that are available with this legacy media.

“Journalism professors really do have to get their heads out of their … sand boxes,” said Reader. “Too many J-school profs are just as ignorant about the community newspaper sector as their students. The irony is that most J-school students work in community journalism while on campus – student newspapers, student-run magazines and websites, student-run radio and TV news shows – but don’t even realize it. Many do their internships with community media and community newspapers continue to be a steady source of entry-level jobs. There is digital innovation in the community press, too, and lots of success stories to share.

“There are plenty of examples of ‘best-practices’ coming from the community press in terms of reporting, editing, visual and multimedia journalism, professional ethics and more,” added Reader. My advice for J-school profs is to contact their state press associations and ask them to name the five best “small newspapers” in the state, and then for the profs to get to know those papers and their staffs. Invite them to campus to talk to classes.  They will attest that print is not dead.”

READOUT: Community and daily journalism differ

Jock Lauterer, who wrote the book on community journalism with the book, “Community Journalism,” contends that students need to know successful community journalism differs markedly from the troubled big city journalism. Community journalism works because it involves relentless local coverage that helps a community define itself. Community journalism works because it’s extremely personal as the reporters live among those whom they cover and feel a special accountability to them. Community journalism works because the wider-frame national and global issues are localized.

Although Chyi, Reader, Lauterer and other journalism academics are adamant that print is not dead, they would certainly not counsel students to ignore the news successes of the digital age. Digitalization does seem to be working for larger, national news operations. Digitalization has allowed for interesting websites that aggregate news and features for reader convenience (although sometimes violating original copyrights). Digitalization has provided useful add-ons for newspaper operations, from websites to Facebook to the tweets that provide a heads-up for late-breaking stories. Above all, digitalization can improve reporting. Computer-assisted tools allow reporters to gather more data, contact more sources, check more facts and write better-researched stories. There is, however, a flip side to all this, as Reader points out.

“The flip side of digitalization is that there has been a proliferation of fake news, advertorial, and crassly ideological garbage on the web. The culture war in the U.S. also has led to an across-the-board “dumbing down” of the general population, to the point where they only believe media messages that confirm their own personal biases. They are openly hostile toward media that challenge their beliefs,” Reader said.

“This is not new in human society. Francis Bacon lamented such willful ignorance and narrow-mindedness in the Novum Organum, first published in 1620: superstition, stubbornness, dismissing ‘difficult” information,’ gravitating toward entertainments and trivia, etc. The Internet has empowered those who would exploit such willful ignorance using the trappings of ‘real news,’” Reader contended. “The challenge for journalists today and in the future will be to stand, always, with integrity, bravery, and tenacity. That is how real journalists will stand apart from charlatans, and how community newspapers will stand apart from the putridity of cable television and crassly ideological websites.”