Category Archives: Editorial

Sinclair’s right-wing agenda troubling


By Don Corrigan

Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s plan to buy Chicago-based Tribune Media Co. for $3.9 billion has come under fire and there’s no shortage of local and national critics.

Criticism is also being directed at the FCC, which will violate its own rules for reining in monopoly media growth if commissioners seal the deal for Sinclair. In the St. Louis market, KDNL (Channel 30) is now owned by Sinclair and the purchase of Tribune would add KTVI (Channel 2) and KPLR (Channel 11) to its media stable.

On the national level, Sinclair’s plan would provide it with 233 television stations reaching 72 percent of American households. While the FCC has rules allowing a single company to reach no more than 39 percent of the nation’s households, the FCC is cutting corners with a “UHF discount.” This permits stations broadcasting on higher UHF frequencies to count only one-half their audience against the previous cap of 39 percent.

Opponents of the FCC action argue that the Trump FCC is disposed to bend the rules as a payback for Sinclair’s unflinching support of candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election. They note that Sinclair provided its affiliates with admiring coverage of Republican Trump and critical coverage of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Among the national critics of the Sinclair takeover of Tribune are industry rivals such as cable companies, T-Mobile USA, American Cable Association and Dish Network LLC.

The American Television Alliance issued a statement noting that the FCC “giving Sinclair a pass on local ownership limits in cities like Seattle, St. Louis and Oklahoma City would all but guarantee more blackouts and higher prices for consumers in those markets.”

Dish Network followed suit with its own statement noting that “Sinclair’s pattern and practice have become a matter of record: buy a station, cut the local staff, move resources and decision-making to corporate headquarters, and let localism suffer… Sinclair’s recent earnings remove any lingering doubt over whether that pattern and practice will somehow abate with this acquisition.”

Industry opponents of the buyout also note that in markets such as Seattle, St. Louis, Portland, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, the new arrangement would give Sinclair an unfair advantage in courting advertisers. It could offer local advertisers discounted “multi-station buys” while punishing advertisers who place their messages with a local TV rival.

Politicizing News

As media industry opponents focus on monopoly practices, other critics are upset by an expansion of Sinclair with its propensity to use biased and fake news. Among these national critics are Common Cause, United Church of Christ, Free Press and well-known pundits and comedians from Robert Reed at the Chicago Tribune to John Oliver at HBO.

According to Free Press, liberal media watchdog, “Sinclair’s practice of forcing stations to promote an extreme conservative perspective and distorts local news actively threatens the well-being of marginalized communities across the nation, specifically communities of color and immigrants.”

Free Press added that the appearance of a quid pro quo arrangement between the Trump administration and Sinclair also raises concerns Sinclair is trading positive coverage for regulatory favors.  While Sinclair is welcome to an editorial viewpoint, it is not entitled to distort news coverage to those ends, or to extract tailor-made changes to FCC rules, according to Free Press.

Comedian John Oliver demolished the Sinclair deal and its news practices in a recent 19-minute segment of “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver took aim at a little-known company coming up with $4 billion to buy television outlets to politicize them, like FOX News. Oliver showed several examples of typical Sinclair broadcasts, which lean “noticeably conservative” and which are often conspiratorial in nature.

“If the opinions were confined to just the commentary or the ad breaks, that would be one thing,” said Oliver. “But Sinclair can sometimes dictate the content of your local newscasts as well, and in contrast to FOX News, a conservative outlet where you basically know what you’re getting, with Sinclair, they’re injecting FOX-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors, the two people who you know, and who you trust… You may not realize it’s happening,” Oliver warned, “because Sinclair and its digital news subsidiary, Circa, not only produce and send packages to their stations; they even write scripts that local anchors use to introduce the pieces.”

Oliver then showed local anchor after local anchor, across the country, using the exact same words to introduce a story about Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Although Flynn is one of the Trump associates caught up in the so-called “Russian collusion probe,” the Sinclair piece made it look as if he were the victim of a “personal vendetta” by a misguided FBI.

Oliver asked: Why is this being carried on local news? Why is the content so biased? Why is there no context about Flynn’s activities with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign?

Local Reaction

St. Louis County media activist Tom Flanagan said he fears no one is paying attention to what is about to happen in the Gateway City’s media market. He said clergy, unions and progressives need to raise their voices against a right-wing media machine that will come to dwarf the influence of FOX Cable News.

“I don’t think many in St. Louis are aware it’s happening,” said Flanagan. “There are so many attacks on rules and regulations which protect people and the environment now, it is just hard to keep up with it all.

“It is also happening so often that I see a feeling of apathy on issues like who controls the news media,” added Flanagan. “Issues of the day that seem to be more intensely felt are social ones like immigration, persecution of Muslims, race relations, LGBTQ discrimination and health-care coverage.”

Flanagan pointed out that fairness in reporting on any and all of these issues would be compromised by a Sinclair takeover with three of its 233 TV stations owned in St. Louis. This is why media ownership constitutes a sort of umbrella issue that all progressives should be concerned about, Flanagan said.

St. Louis area native Jeffrey Blevins, who now heads the journalism department at the University of Cincinnati, noted that Sinclair is known to be heavy-handed in its selection of news content, telling stations that certain segments (with a rightward bent) are “must runs” which takes the editorial decisions out of the hands of local station managers.

“Essentially, Sinclair promises to be a localized, and more insidious form of Fox Cable News after its acquisition of Tribune,” according to Blevins, and he added: “Consider the impact that Clear Channel had on radio broadcasting after it began gobbling up stations and replacing locally-produced public affairs programming with syndicated conservative talk shows, such as Rush Limbaugh.”

The issue of media monopoly in St. Louis and nationwide has long been a concern of Jessica Brown, founder of the Gateway Media Literacy Partners. She has taught media literacy at the university level for 14 years. She said the Sinclair takeover will result in fewer opportunities to bring new voices and diversity to television in the metro St. Louis market.

“Media literacy is a survival skill; a skill essential to the survival of democracy,” said Brown. “People need to study and to act. People underestimate the power of one, and the power of constant communication with station managers, producers, reporters. Speak up about missing voices in stories; or misinformation in news broadcasts.

“Get in touch with advertisers as well,” said Brown. “A good advertiser boycott campaign can work, especially via social media. I believe we need to talk to a variety of stakeholders: our neighbors; the groups we belong to; our local, state and national political representatives. Demand that our media environment remains open to the public and that a local community’s myriad voices be heard.  And, we also need to support alternative media.”


Algorithms monitor marketplace of ideas

By Fu Tao and William A. Babcock

Algorithms are pervasive in our daily lives. Every action we accomplish online could not be achieved without them.

As evidence, simply quickly thumb through New York Times articles from this year and you will easily find coverage on how algorithms are designed to complete tasks that had not been under our radar before. Using algorithms, cosmetics are customized to each consumer’s skin tone. Algorithm-driven chatbots, an application of artificial intelligence at a low-level, are used by customer companies such as Domino’s for customers’ orders or inquiries. Sensors, equipped with algorithms, detect the change of heart beat, eye movement and body temperature of drivers to provide “drowsy” warnings.

And of course there are other more well-known applications of algorithms such as those used by search engines to make ranking decisions.

Algorithms have also been used in journalism and the media industry. Konstantin Dörr, a media researcher at the University of Zurich, refers to the former as Algorithmic Journalism. The task of generating automated reports is realized by bots. An Internet bot, or simply “bot,” as a nickname for a software robot, is a software application doing automated, sometimes repetitive, jobs based on artificial intelligence. Some also call this software-generated, no-human-intervention stories robo-journalism.

In early 2014, the Los Angeles Times ran a story online of an earthquake that hit the Los Angeles area eight minutes after it had happened. But the story contained a footnote — “This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author,” according to Atlantic magazine. This early report about earthquakes was automatically generated based on a pre-written template by a bot designed by Ken Schwencke, a Los Angeles Times journalist and database producer.

In 2014, the Associated Press announced its use of a news-writing bot called Wordsmith, for short U.S. corporate earnings stories. Wordsmith’s algorithm could spot trends in data and choose appropriate words to formulate reports featuring the AP style. Last year, the AP expanded its use of artificial intelligence to its coverage of Minor League Baseball games.

The AP is not alone in journalistic automation. According to Nieman Reports, the New York Times, ProPublica, Forbes, Yahoo, and Oregon Public Broadcasting all use algorithms to generate reports on business, sports, education, public safety, and earthquake impacts, to be exact.

The New York Times also developed a content marketing bot called Blossom to help its social media editors decide which stories might be trending on Facebook among the 300 stories it publishes everyday. In 2016, Heliograf, the Washington Post’s bot, made its first debut at the Rio Olympics churning out scores and schedules of the matches.

The list of writing bots by some major U.S. news organizations includes:

News Organization Launched in Bot’s Name Purpose Developer
Los Angeles Times 2014 Quakebot Earthquake Ken Schwencke
 Associated Press 2014 Wordsmith Business Automated Insights
New York Times 2015 Blossom Content marketing The NYT
 Washington Post 2016 Heliograf Sports The Post

Algorithms per se are supposedly neutral as they are the specified sequences of logical operations based on mathematics and statistics, designed to offer solutions. That said, last year saw algorithms for social media go out of control.

Tay, Microsoft’s chatbot, cutely designed to engage American millenials, was expected to learn from conversations over time. Trolls at 4chan, however, deliberately took advantage of Tay’s vulnerability in design and taught her to tweet racist and genocidal slurs hours after launching, according to Microsoft’s blog. Microsoft thus had to shut her down, made a public apology, and promised to keep her offline till algorithmic problems are solved.

Facebook, which had some 1.94 billion monthly active users worldwide as of the first quarter of this year, has received criticism on its algorithm for Trending, a service added in 2014 providing users a personalized list of popular topics. A National Public Radio report showed some Facebook users complained the Women’s March, a protest involving about 1 million people, did not show up in their Trending topics.

Monitoring claims of fake news

But the most disastrous criticism Facebook received during last year’s presidential election was trending fake news. A most recent Guardian report stated even after Facebook adopted the initiative to flag possible fake news with the help of users and third-party fact-checkers, it proved ineffective. Facebook’s news feed algorithm was also cast in doubt for possibly suppressing news representing conservative views, though Facebook denied the algorithm bias.

News aggregators such as Google News and Reddit use algorithms for customized news recommendations. In Reddit, factors affecting whether a post will appear on the front page include shares, keywords, number of up-votes or down-votes received, timing of submission and the amount of contacts.

Still, there are concerns algorithms may result in trending polarized opinions that create filter bubbles, a concept raised by Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy, a website for “meaningful” viral content, to refer to the “personal ecosystem of information that’s been catered by these algorithms.”

While one of the goals of journalism is to provide a marketplace of ideas, it appears the door to this marketplace increasingly is being guarded by an algorithm doorkeeper. But this begs the question: Since human beings have created algorithms, isn’t it disingenuous to place blame on the technology itself and not on its creators?

Who’s watching the watchdog?

In his article, “Bias in algorithmic filtering and personalization”, Engin Bozdag, Privacy by Design Lead at Philips, the Netherlands, writes human beings are the designers of algorithms and they can manually affect results of algorithms. When Facebook fired its human editors whose duties had been writing descriptions for Trending stories and manually adding news to Trending to ensure diversity and inclusiveness, fake news about Fox News host Megyn Kelly was kicked out for endorsing Hillary Clinton immediately trended.

But as GJR has reported in the past, there are fewer media watchdogs any longer monitoring the marketplace of ideas. The New York Times recently terminated the position of public editor (also called readers’ representative or ombudsman), claiming the position is now superfluous. Other U.S. newspapers had also eliminated this position. Nor are there any longer any news or press councils, citywide or national, left in America. Few news organizations have media reporters or editors, and most “media critics” have gone the way of the dodo bird. And media organizations that even still have media ethics codes are hard pressed to even find them.

With the media’s ethics toolbox all but empty, algorithms, and those who create and monitor them, have become one of the very few arbiters of what’s any longer right or truthful or responsible or fair in the media. That’s scary.

Last year the National Science and Technology Council released the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan, providing the guide for future artificial intelligence research and design. One of the strategies is to understand and address the ethical, legal and societal implications of AI. The Plan warns that “many concerns have been voiced about the susceptibility of data-intensive AI algorithms to error and misuse, and the possible ramifications for gender, age, racial, or economic classes.”

Algorithm-driven AI clearly is the trend, and journalism and the media industry are following — and often leading — this trend. Accordingly, it is time to add more ethical reconsideration to the design and use of algorithms in the news and mass media industry.

First Amendment expert calls Post-Dispatch editorial on protests ‘irresponsible’ and imprecise

Publisher’s note:  Gregory Magarian, one of the nation’s leading First Amendment experts and a professor at Washington University Law School, criticized the Sunday Post-Dispatch editorial for irresponsibly lumping together violent and non-violent protests.  He sent this letter to the Post-Dispatch Editorial Editor Tod Robberson after the editorial criticized actions of protesters following the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley. Magarian says Robberson replied “We stand by the editorial as written.” Here is a link to the editorial and the text of Magarian’s letter.

Mr. Robberson,

I teach constitutional law at the Washington University School of Law. I specialize in First Amendment law. Two of the topics that most concern me are the freedom of the press and rights of public protest. (Being a law professor I talk too much, so I apologize in advance for the length of this message.)

With the utmost respect, I think your editorial today (Sunday) on the protests and violence this weekend (“Making sense of senseless protest violence”) was wildly irresponsible. I agree with some parts of the editorial and disagree with others, but my sharp concern goes to one particular problem: treating nonviolent protesters and violent actors as an undifferentiated mass. That approach demonizes nonviolent protesters and contributes to a growing culture in our country of hostility to free speech. A newspaper, of all entities, should know better.

Let me get two important caveats out of the way:

First, I agree without reservation that the violence and vandalism that happened this weekend are entirely wrong. My purpose here is to defend the actions of nonviolent protesters, not to condone or excuse violence in any way. (I live a block from the mayor’s house, so I’m acutely hostile toward the people who committed violence in my own neighborhood.)

Second, I don’t mean to suggest that the bad practice I’m criticizing is unusual to the P-D. In fact, the problem is endemic to media coverage of public protest. I’m writing to you because, like most people, I have special concern for my city and its institutions.

The reality of public protests, which I’m sure you know at least as well as I do, is that a lot of different people and factions participate in a variety of different actions. Most mass protests are carefully organized, with articulated goals. At the other extreme, usually at night, different elements with their own agendas get involved. In particular, two groups with violent intent come out at night: anarchist-black bloc-antifa types, whose m.o. is to hijack protests with their own more violent methods, and knuckleheads (for want of a better term) who have no political agenda but just want to break things.

The nonviolent protesters bear no responsibility — none — for the actions of violent actors. I suspect that the majority of violent actors don’t even participate in nonviolent protests, though I can’t prove that suspicion. In any event, to blame violence on the nonviolent protesters is a very dangerous kind of guilt by association. Ah, you might respond, but the nonviolent protesters create the context in which the violent actors can do bad things. In a way that’s true, but it proves far too much. By that logic, any public protest is wrong.

Imagine if the P-D broke a major corruption story about a public official. Your reporters sourced the story well and published only those allegations and claims for which they could find a solid basis. The story creates a major buzz in the city. Other, less responsible media outlets, exploiting the public anger at the official that the P-D’s reporting has triggered, publish egregious charges against the official that those other outlets know are false. The official, in response, sues the P-D for libel. That lawsuit, of course, would be indefensible.

Your editorial today is a direct parallel.

You acknowledge that Friday’s daytime protests were “mostly peaceful.” Even in talking about those protests, though, you make no effort to distinguish the protesters who remained peaceful from the individuals who committed violent acts. You say “bricks and water bottles were hurled.” That passive voice is a cop-out. It implies that the “mostly peaceful” protest degenerated into the hurling of bricks and bottles. But we know that’s not what happened. “The protest” wasn’t a single, concerted phenomenon. The clergy and community organizers who engineered the major protest didn’t decide, at some point, to start throwing bricks. Most people on that street started peaceful and stayed peaceful. A much smaller number of people threw bricks bottles. Those are two very different groups of actors. They aren’t all simply “the protesters” engaged in “the protests.”

The problem gets worse as the editorial goes on. Here’s the passage that really bothers me:  “Some protesters have said they plan to attack symbols of commerce and inflict discomfort on the comfortable. Even if they rationalize property destruction as legitimate protest, why attack the mayor’s house?”

I tried to follow the first hyperlink in that passage, to see exactly what you were referencing, but the link is dead, so I have to work from my knowledge and assumptions. Protest organizers have indeed said they intend to “attack symbols of commerce and inflict discomfort,” if by “attack” you mean “disrupt.” That’s a core strategy of these protests and of the Black Lives Matter movement more broadly. You then accuse these disruption organizers of “rationaliz[ing] property destruction as legitimate protest.”

I’m having a hard time finding words to describe how much that bothers me. I don’t know of any disruption organizers who have rationalized violence. The organizers explicitly portray the disruption strategy as nonviolent — aggressive, for sure, but getting in someone’s way isn’t property destruction. However, even if some disruption organizer has rationalized violence, your “they” implies that all disruption organizers have done so. Then the passage’s second “attack” clearly refers to the vandalism of the mayor’s house. At that point, you’re portraying the architects of the disruption strategy and the vandals who physically attacked the mayor’s home as the same people.

Unless you have evidence of those linkages (which in that event you should publish), they fail every standard I’m aware of for responsible journalism.

Why does this matter? A few days ago, a KMOV reporter interviewed me about the recent incident in Kirkwood when a motorist plowed into some protesters ahead of the Stockley verdict. She wanted me to talk about the permissible conduct of drivers who encounter protests that block streets. The core of what I said was: If you’re a driver, you don’t get to run anybody down, even if they’re unlawfully blocking your way. The online version of the KMOV story got a lot of heated reactions from our fellow citizens who insisted that they of course have every right to run down protesters who block the road, and by God they’ll run those bastards down if they want to.

The right and the ability to protest publicly are crucial to a functioning democratic society. Unfortunately, as that little anecdote indicates, a lot of people have an irrational hatred for protesters. (Note also the spate of recent state legislative proposals to restrict public protest in various ways.) By conflating nonviolent protesters and violent actors, the P-D (and other media outlets) feeds that irrational hatred.

I respectfully urge you and the P-D’s news and editorial departments to do better. Describe protests more accurately and precisely. Emphasize the presence in and around protests of different actors with different agendas. Identify, to the extent possible, which people and groups say and do which things in the course of protests. Emphasize not just that a day’s aggregate activities were “mostly peaceful” but that most protesters that day were entirely peaceful. Report and describe nonviolent actions with as much detail as you report violent actions. Basically, do what you usually do so well — help the public understand what’s actually going on.

Thank you for hearing me out.
Greg Magarian

The Constitution under stress after Charlottesville


by William H. Freivogel

The bloody weekend in Charlottesville, Va. has put enormous strain on President Donald Trump, the First Amendment and constitutional checks on the president.

Trump flunked the stress test spectacularly in his unhinged, red-faced rant of a press conference by failing to speak to the nation with the voice of moral authority.

The First Amendment emerged from the weekend tattered, facing new questions about how to protect protests when demonstrators are hateful and armed.

But the separation of powers held up pretty well. An unprecedented number of top Republicans criticized their own party’s president for failing to call out white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And the mainstream media continued to pepper Trump with hard questions in the face of the president’s repeated and false refrain about “fake media.” People would understand his view on Charlottesville, he claimed, “if the press were not fake and were honest.”

Going ‘rogue’

Trump wasn’t supposed to answer questions after his Trump Tower event on infrastructure on Tuesday, but he went “rogue,” as one staffer put it. Chief of Staff John Kelly stood glumly to one side.

White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, standing near the president, was “particularly displeased” according to Politico, that “the president launched into a rant about the culpability of the ‘alt-left’ while calling some of the protesters at the white nationalist rally ‘very fine people.’”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, also was trapped next to Trump. McConnell on Wednesday said simply, “There are no good neo-Nazis.”

Exhibiting the nastiness he shows when backed into a corner, Trump went out of his way to attack Sen. John McCain, R-Az. Asked about McCain’s criticism of the alt-right, Trump shot back, “you mean Sen. McCain who voted against us getting good health care.” Then, in an especially distasteful quip, he added sarcastically, “I’m sure Sen. McCain must know what he’s talking about it.” McCain is under treatment for brain cancer.

By Wednesday the resignations of seven top industry leaders from presidential advisory councils led Trump to dissolve two of them. He didn’t hesitate to blast some of those who quit in protest for failing to bring jobs back to the United States.

Sprinkled throughout the press conference were attacks at the media. “I’m not finished, fake news,” he said when he thought a reporter was interrupting. At another point, he suggested his view would be better understood “if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you are not….”

“Unlike the media before I make a statement I like to know the facts … I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters” — a claim that doesn’t pass the sniff test coming from the president who has lied more often in his first year of office than any other president.

But most disheartening was the ignorance of American history explicit and implicit in his comments. He defended the “very fine people” there because of “the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.” He said these protests were understandable when “you are changing history, you are changing culture” by taking down Confederate monuments.

Never mind that these “very fine people” were standing next to white supremacists and Nazi’s chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Never mind that the city had changed the name from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. Never mind that Trump failed to see the difference between Robert E. Lee, a traitor who fought a war to destroy the United States, and George Washington, who fought a war to create it.

First Amendment

After the death of a counter-protester and two police officers, the ACLU and federal courts faced criticism for having forced the city to allow the demonstration in Emancipation Park, rather than another park a mile away.

As a matter of black letter law, U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad was right to issue an injunction forcing the city to allow the demonstration in Emancipation Park. The judge noted that the city had tried to move the white supremacists’ rally away from Emancipation Park, but had not revoked the counter-demonstrators’ permits for the area near that park. This amounted to discrimination against the white supremacists based on the content of their speech, which violates the First Amendment.

But Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern suggest future First Amendment cases may have to factor in the growth of the Second Amendment and open carry movement. They wrote:

“The judge (Conrad) failed to answer the central question: When demonstrators plan to carry guns and cause fights, does the government have a compelling interest in regulating their expressive conduct more carefully than it’d be able to otherwise? This is not any one judge’s fault. It is a failure of our First Amendment jurisprudence to reckon with our Second Amendment reality.”

Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, made a similar point in the Lawfare blog. He noted that Justice Robert H. Jackson had once cautioned that if the court “does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.

Twitter shaming

Another media-related First Amendment issue emerging from Charlottesville was the Twitter campaign – @YesYoureRacist – to shame white supremacists and neo-Nazis who attended the rally.

A first casualty was Cole White, a cook at a hot dog stand in Berkeley, Calif. who lost his job after he was outed as a demonstrator. White has no First Amendment protection because the amendment does not protect people from a private employer.

But Peter Cvjetanovic, a student and employee at the University of Nevada does have constitutional protection from the 10,000 petitioners who demanded him be expelled for his views.

The university said it rejected his views but added, “there is no constitutional or legal reason to expel him from our University or to terminate his employment.”

The university is right. As despicable as Cvjetanovic’s views are, they cannot be the basis of punishment by a state institution.

Those joining in the Twitter campaign might ask themselves how they would feel about a social media campaign to expel a member of Black Lives Matter or the anti-fascist Antifa group? They also might ask whether they want to be part of an online vigilante attack that sometimes mistakenly singles out lookalikes.

In an online piece of the New Yorker, the insightful journalist Robin Wright asks alarmingly, “Is America headed for a new kind of Civil War?” Wright quotes experts who warn America is not immune from the problems that befall other countries.

But that is a risk we should be able to avoid as long as the press and courts check the power of this wayward president, as long as Republicans with the spine of Sen. McCain criticize Trump’s excesses and as long as the First Amendment provides a constitutional way for protesters, right and left, to vent their anger.

Eyewitness to a century of big news stories

Publisher’s note:  Richard Dudman wrote this third-person autobiography about his career in 2004

by Richard Dudman

Dudman with Elizabeth Pond of the Christian Science Monitor and Michael Morrow of the Dispatch News Service International. The three were captured together in Cambodia in 1970.

Thirty years after his capture, Dudman interviews the former general who oversaw his captivity and release.




















When Richard Dudman was captured in Cambodia in 1970 by Viet Cong guerrillas when covering the Vietnam war for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he whispered to his two fellow journalists, “If we get out of here alive, we’ll have one hell of a good story.”

The remark was partly in fun, intended to bolster the spirits of the younger reporters, as the three of them were marched off into the jungle with their hands in the air and AK-47s pointed at their backs.

But, at the same time that Dudman sensed the danger, he saw the capture as a rare opportunity to observe the other side in a war that he had been covering off and on for a decade as a correspondent for the Post-Dispatch.

When the three were released nearly six weeks later, Dudman told the story in a syndicated series of articles and later in a book, “40 Days with the Enemy.”  The personal experience enabled him to explain how the guerrilla soldiers’ survival skills and high morale had been able to withstand heavy U.S. bombing and how the American war seemed increasingly unwinnable.


Almost flunking out

The quest for a “good story” shaped Dudman’s entire career as a reporter over a span of 67 years.  As a college freshman, he started as a reporter and photographer for the Stanford Daily in 1936, with a summer job the following year on his uncle’s daily newspaper, the Oroville (Calif.) Mercury-Register.  He almost flunked out of Stanford through his devotion to journalism.

Dudman’s first job on a major paper was as a reporter on the Denver Post.  One of his best stories was an account of a Hispanic war veteran’s effort to buy a house in a restricted neighborhood.  The would-be buyer happened to have lost both legs as a U.S. Marine in the World War II battle of Guadalcanal.  The man had a good job managing the laundry at a veterans hospital and was clearly well qualified to buy the house – except that he was a “Mexican,” as the head of a Denver real estate company said.

The realtor tried to explain that the buyer would be happier in a neighborhood of his own kind. He was startled to learn that the reporter intended to write a story about the case and rushed to the newspaper office to try to prevent it. He went into the composing room and made the mistake of touching the lead type. Outraged union typographers stopped him, and the story was printed. The man got the house.

While on the Denver Post, Dudman was sent to Europe to check on the strength of the Zionist movement among Jewish displaced persons.  He found his way into one of the semi-secret convoys arranged by the Haganah, the Jewish army, slipping out of Germany and heading for Palestine.  He joined the group and obtained a false passport identifying him as a Polish Jew named Yehashua Reiss. He covered the group until it was halted in Marseilles when the British intercepted an earlier group on the ship Exodus and returned the emigrants to a displaced-persons camp near Hamburg. Dudman switched to the Exodus story and covered it to the end.


Three decades at Post-Dispatch

In 31 years at the Post-Dispatch, he started as a reporter and rewrite man in St. Louis and wound up as chief Washington correspondent and head of the newspaper’s seven-member Washington bureau.  His last story in Washington was the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.  His leg was in a cast.  He had been hit by a taxicab on an earlier assignment.  Unable to get a cab, Dudman stumped from his office up to the Washington Hilton Hotel, scene of the attack.

While Dudman’s writing style emphasized clarity rather than clever writing, he always strove for forceful expression of the truth.  When he organized a special section on the end of the Vietnam War, timed for publication when Saigon fell to the communists, he started the lead article by calling the end of the war a national “defeat and humiliation.”  Those words made the headline. Most other papers’ wrap-ups on the war used the more acceptable but less accurate description as a “tragedy” or “a noble effort.”

He wrote the lead story when President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impending impeachment and boarded a plane to leave Washington.  Dudman wrote that Nixon resigned “in disgrace.” But an editor deleted that phrase.

Dudman had the satisfaction of seeing his name on the “enemies list” compiled by Nixon’s staff, together with three other members of the paper’s Washington bureau.

He broke into national and international reporting by accident.  A heavy snowstorm tied up traffic in St. Louis shortly after he had joined the paper as a rewrite man.  He was able to drive the managing editor, Raymond Crowley, to work in his war-surplus Jeep, bumping over curbs and taking to the sidewalk to avoid drifts and stalled cars.  Later, when other reporters were out to lunch, Crowley sent him to cover a riot in the city workhouse.

Dudman hailed a cab and ordered the driver to fall in behind a police motorcycle and sidecar racing to the scene.  Dudman followed the officers into the workhouse courtyard, where prisoners were hurling rocks and bottles.  His eyewitness story helped create a reputation for resourcefulness and courage.


Fairground pool desegregation

Racial segregation was widely accepted in St. Louis in the early 1950s.  When the the city desegregated the swimming pool at Fairground Park, Dudman went there on his day off to see how things went.  Hostile whites lined the path as a black father and his children walked from a dressing room to the pool.  Several of the whites complained that the blacks didn’t really want to go swimming but were just trying to assert their rights.

Dudman volunteered a piece for the paper’s “dignity page’ – where it printed news analysis – making the point that the only way to protect civil rights was to exert them, even at personal hazard.

Crowley, by then managing editor, assigned Dudman to the Washington bureau in 1954, when he was completing a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

One of his first assignments as a member of the Washington staff was to cover the 1954 Guatemalan revolution that overthrew the elected leftist government. Dudman hired a horse and rode for two days to catch up with the invading forces led by Colonel Castillo Armas. He covered the fighting and the victorious march into Guatemala City but missed the fact that the CIA was backing what looked like a makeshift revolution.  From then on, he kept his bag packed and his passport up to date and watched more carefully for possible C.I.A. covert interventions.

Four years later, checking reports that the C.I.A. was preparing an invasion of Cuba, Dudman took a cab from Guatemala to Retalhuleu and found a Cuban emigres’ training camp, being prepared as a jump-off point for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Dudman covered the growth of American right-wing organizations.  In his 1962 paperback book “Men of the Far Right,” he speculated – accurately as it turned out – that the conservative movement might pull itself together, take over the Republican Party, and nominate Barry Goldwater for president.

One of his early scoops was obtaining a copy of the Dixon-Yates contract, a top-secret key document in an Eisenhower Administration plot to privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The Post-Dispatch published the entire text and expressed copies of the newspaper to Washington, where members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy consulted it during public hearings on the matter.


Obtaining the Pentagon Papers

Much later, through his left-wing contacts, he was able to obtain parts of the Pentagon Papers shortly after The New York Times and The Washington Post had begun publishing the documents and had been enjoined by the Justice Department.

Dudman undertook several assignments in Latin America, covering the overthrow of Juan Peron in Argentina and a C.I.A.-supported revolution in the Dominican Republic.

He covered the Arab-Israeli war of 1956 and was on assignment in Lebanon when American troops landed in the Suez crisis. Entry into Iraq was blocked after the assassination of Nuri Said, so Dudman first flew to Kuwait and tried to charter a dhow to go up the Tigris River to Baghdad. When that effort failed, he flew to Turkey and hired a taxicab with two other reporters to take a desert track through Kurdish country to Baghdad.

His first venture in the Far East, in 1961, was an assignment, accompanied by Post-Dispatch photographer Paul Berg, to travel the rim of China and find out what he could about Mao Tse-tung’s regime. Americans were prohibited from visiting China at the time.  Most sources were predicting economic and political collapse, but Dudman got a different story by flying to Stockholm for talks with an old friend, Kjell Oberg, who had just completed a year as Sweden’s first ambassador to communist China.  With the help of Oberg’s insights, he was able to describe Mao’s China as likely to survive despite the blunders of the Great Leap Forward.


Questions about Vietnam War

On the same trip, Dudman paid his first visit to Vietnam.  Although he had no fixed view of the growing U.S. intervention, he soon found reasons for skepticism. He reported that U.S. warplanes were already firing on suspected Viet Cong forces, although the U. S. forces were officially only advisers.  On his arrival at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, he observed a row of spigots along the wing of a U.S. warplane and reported on the American practice of crop destruction as a counterinsurgency measure.  He raised questions about the “strategic hamlets” program, in which Vietnamese villagers were screened and moved into supposedly secure communities surrounded by stockades and moats.

On a conducted tour of one such hamlet, he spotted a break in the moat and a building inside that was up against the stockade.  He asked for an explanation.  His guide, a U.S. military adviser, explained that the building, a rice storehouse, had been placed there deliberately, so that Viet Cong raiders could enter it in night and would not have to disturb the hamlet by breaking in.

In 1970, on one of his periodic trips to Vietnam, he arrived in Saigon just as President Richard Nixon was announcing a brief “incursion” into officially neutral Cambodia by U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.

Like other reporters, Dudman spent several days flying with troops in helicopters to outposts established in the jungle in the search for a supposed Vietcong “Pentagon” in what the Nixon administration called a “privileged sanctuary.”

When the search proved fruitless, Dudman and two other reporters, Elizabeth Pond of The Christian Science Monitor and Michael Morrow of Dispath News Service,  borrowed a Jeep and set out from Saigon to Phnom Penh to see how the invading South Vietnamese were treating their traditional enemies the Cambodians. They saw the South Vietnamese looting Cambodian rice warehouses and private homes, stuffing the sacks or rice and furniture into their military trucks.


Death or a good story

The Cambodia venture took a bad turn when the three reporters came to a blown-up bridge and a tree felled across the road.  Realizing that they were probably being ambushed, they began turning around.  Three Asian men carrying AK-47s stepped from behind trees and motioned them out of the car. After a quick body search, they marched the three reporters off into the jungle.  On bicycles and later in an open truck, they were taken deep into Viet Cong territory, then blindfolded, beaten over the head, and eventually taken before a senior Viet Cong officer.  He let them clean up, gave them some rice, and told them they would be freed if his investigation showed that they truly were reporters and not CIA spies.

Thus began several weeks of travel by night–first in a Land Rover and later on bicycles or on foot–and sleeping and resting by day in peasant huts on stilts, with five guerrilla escorts.  The idea was to keep out of sight of American planes, which probably would shoot anything moving on the ground, and avoid the U.S. and South Vietnamese tanks that they could often hear clanking though the jungle.

They soon began eating with their escorts, mainly rice, sometimes with a bit of vegetable or chicken.  Twice, on Vietnamese holidays, they ate roast dog, followed the next day by dog soup. They recognized afterward that the Stockholm syndrome soon set in.  All eight of them–the three reporters and five guerrilla escorts–faced the same hazards and developed a friendship. They sang songs–the guerrillas kept asking for “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”—and playing chess together, using squares marked off on a reed mat and men carved from branches of trees.

Michael Morrow spoke some Vietnamese and was able to pass along to the other two what the guerrillas learned from BBC broadcasts, including the demonstration at Kent State University when national guardsmen shot and killed four student demonstrators.

After five weeks, the captives were told one morning to expect a visitor.  It turned out to be the same senior officer who had interrogated them the first day.  He said they would be freed and asked where they would like to be released. They suggested being taken up the Ho Chi Minh trail, the mysterious North Vietnamese supply route from Hanoi.

Too dangerous, he said.  Then how about sneaking them into Saigon through those secret underground passages?  Not practical, he said.  Finally he did what he had planned all along: Took them on motorbikes to the main highway, near where they had been captured, and let them hitchhike their way to Saigon in a returning South Vietnamese military truck convoy.

Dudman returned to Washington and immediately flew on to St. Louis to write a series of articles syndicated by The New York Times.  He dictated most of the stories from a sickbed, since he had come down with an obscure East Asian bacterial disease, melioidosis.

Why had he been released?  Probably because Hanoi had been deluged by assurances arranged by Dudman¹s wife, Helen, that he was simply a reporter and in no way a part of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Some U.S. Senators, several Communist ambassadors to Washington, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk all interceded.  The Hanoi authorities must also have hoped that Dudman’s reports would do them some good.  The articles and his later book, “40 Days with the Enemy,” did, indeed, portray the Vietnamese guerrillas as human beings with high morale and a determination to win a war of survival.

Twenty-three years later, long after Dudman’s retirement from the newspaper, he learned by chance the identity of the officer who interrogated and later released the captives.  He arranged with the Post-Dispatch to go back to work temporarily and went with a photographer to interview the officer, a retired general, at his home in the Mekong delta.  They compared maps and experiences.  The general said the Land Rover the captives and their guards had used briefly was his own command car; he had had to ride a bicycle for a few days.  His parting words were: “Brother Dudman, I won’t try to persuade you to accept one-party democracy, but you must not try to persuade me on multi-party democracy.”


Pol Pot hospitality

Dudman had another close call in Cambodia in 1978. After many applications, he finally got a visa to enter Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot.  He went on what amounted to a conducted tour, along with Elizabeth Becker, then a reporter for The Washington Post and Malcolm Caldwell, a radical economist at the University of Edinburgh.

After an interviews with the mysterious dictator, the guest house where they were staying was invaded by gunmen.  When Dudman heard shots and saw one of the gunmen outside his second-floor room, he thought at first it was one of Pol Pot’s guards investigating a prowler.

The gunman fired one shot at Dudman, who ducked inside his bedroom and stepped to one side just before two more shots ripped through the door.  There followed a couple of hours of occasional shots, breaking glass and sounds of footsteps.  Finally, the Cambodian diplomat in charge of the visit appeared at the door and said that Becker was all right but Caldwell had been killed. The economist’s body lay next to his bed with a gaping wound in the chest, while the gunman lay dead at the doorway in a pool of blood.

Various explanations were given for the incident. Dudman suspected that Pol Pot’s enemies wanted to frustrate his belated attempt to make contact with the rest of the world by permitting non-Communists to visit the country.


A contrarian

Dudman’s account of the visit seemed to demonstrate a contrarian streak in his makeup.  He described other Pol Pot efforts to improve his reputation in the world, some successful housing projects, and the beginnings of rice export, as well as the sight of many healthy Cambodians in contrast to expectations that the entire population was being worked and starved to death.  That was before the mass burial grounds had been exposed.  Dudman ventured the controversial suggestion that, for all his misdeeds, Pol Pot had something of a bad press.

A similar contrariness may have figured in Dudman’s early doubts about the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and in his continuing skepticism about claims that mankind was responsible for global warming.

Another example came in his initial suspicion that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the result of a conspiracy rather than simply the work of Lee Harvey Oswald.  Dudman was covering the president’s Texas visit and reported the assassination and Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald.

Dudman reported seeing what appeared to be a bullet hole in the windshield of the presidential limousine and suggested that this contradicted the official finding that the president had been shot from behind.

Dudman eventually concluded that the conspiracy theories were far-fetched, but conspiracy buffs kept citing his reports and writing and telephoning him for many years.

As Post-Dispatch bureau chief, he urged speed, accuracy, and fairness – not necessarily in that order – and added, “Don’t be too responsible.”  Too often he had heard public officials trying to talk him out of writing a story on the ground that it might endanger national security.  The true reason for their objection usually was political convenience.


Retiring to Maine

Dudman retired from the Post-Dispatch in 1981.  He and his wife decided to move to coastal Maine, where they had spent summer vacations for more than 20 years.  Helen Dudman, who had worked for The Washington Post, Post-Newsweek Stations, and public broadcasting, had been wanting to run something on her own.  They bought a local commercial radio station in Ellsworth, Maine, and Helen gradually expanded it into a three-station business.

Richard helped with the news side but never could get used to writing the news in such short bursts.  His principal interests for a time were sailing his Friendship sloop, maintaining it in the winter, and building a small wooden boat.  He also built a workshop addition on their summer house on Islesford, in the Cranberry Isles, and later a deck and a nearby bunkhouse for their grandchildren.

One day in 1986, when he was working at a boatyard, he got a telephone call from the Chinese embassy in Ottawa with the word that his application for a visa to China was ready to be issued.  It was a long-delayed response to his many demands to cover a devastating earthquake that had rocked Beijing and destroyed the city of Tangshan in 1976.  Chinese authorities had kept putting him off.  Now that the city had been rebuilt, they were ready to let the foreign press visit the site and tell the story.  Dudman went back to work for a month.

Accompanied by a Post-Dispatch photographer, he interviewed scores of survivors as well as Chinese earthquake specialists and told the 10-year-old story in a special section titled “China’s Mystery Quake.”

Chinese authorities had been secretive about the quake, partly because of a Chinese suspicion that such natural events can herald a regime change.  For years, they would venture no total of the dead, and Taiwan obliged by putting out the world that 800,000 people had died, mostly in that city of 1 million.  By extrapolating from death tolls at several factories and a university, Dudman was able to confirm that the eventual Chinese official figure for the death toll – 242,000 – was probably correct.


Another journalistic opportunity arose when Peter Bird Martin, a Time magazine veteran and an old friend from their early years on the Post-Dispatch, started the South-North News Service with headquarters in Hanover, New Hampshire.  He assembled a corps of correspondents in developing countries and, with the help of rotating managing editors, produced news stories that mainstream editors found a relief from the usual war-and-disaster stories from the Third World.

Dudman volunteered as one of the managing editors and worked there for nine winters.  Their best break came when a Wall Street Journal reporter, Gerald Seib, was detained in Tehran and the little news service was the only western news organization with a correspondent there.  The result was three world scoops on three consecutive days: when Iranian authorities thought Seib was Jewish and accused him of spying for Israel, when they realized their mistake and planned to release him, and when he arrived at the Swiss embassy in Tehran and was on his way home.


Writing editorials

Dudman learned that the Bangor (Maine) Daily News needed a part-time freelance writer to produce two editorials a week to help fill out the column. He took the job and now (2004) is in his fourth year, never having missed a week, writing about war and politics and public health and consumer issues and such nature subjects as why birds fly in Vs and how they know which direction to go.

Richard Beebe Dudman was born May 3, 1918, in Centerville, Iowa.  His father, Virgil Ernest Dudman, was an obstetrician and gynecologist.  His mother, the former Wilma Esther Beebe, had been a school teacher in English and mathematics.  The family moved to Portland, Oregon in 1920.  Dudman attended Washington High School there and then studied journalism and economics at Stanford University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1940.

He worked for a year in a local public opinion polling business and then spent a year in the merchant marine, making his way up from cabin boy to chief cook on a series of tramp steamers in the North Atlantic, dodging their submarines in the early period of World War II.  In 1942, he volunteered for the U.S. Naval Reserve and served four years as a deck officer, mostly on an armed refrigerated supply ship, the USS Tarazed.

After the war, he worked as a reporter and rewrite man at the Denver Post.  He and Helen met there and were married March 14, 1948. they have two daughters, Iris Dudman, a television producer and Martha Tod Dudman, a writer and professional fund raiser.  They have four grandchildren.


Richard B. Dudman – a great American reporter

by William H. Freivogel

Dudman with Elizabeth Pond of the Christian Science Monitor and Michael Morrow of the Dispatch News Service International.  The three were captured together in Cambodia in 1970.

St. Louisans learned about the great events of the second half of the 20th century through the eyes, ears and forceful dispatches of Richard B. Dudman, a great American reporter who led the Washington Bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1969 to 1981.  Dudman died last week at 99.

The Kennedy assassination.  The Bay of Pigs. The Vietnam War.  The Pentagon Papers.  Watergate.  The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.  Dudman wrote about them all with a straight-forward, tell-the-truth insight few matched.

He rode a horse to the front when covering a 1954 rebellion in Guatemala instigated by the CIA.  He raised questions about a bullet hole in the windshield of the car in which Kennedy was killed.   Reporting in Vietnam he wrote his editor in 1965, “The war is being lost, and in a hurry.”  About 55,000 Americans died in Vietnam after that assessment.

Dudman and two companions were captured in Cambodia in 1970 and held 40 days – an experience he turned into riveting news stories and a book.

When the United States left Vietnam, Dudman wrote in a special section that the war had ended in “defeat and humiliation.”  Other newspapers called it a tragic end of a “noble effort.”

Dudman had a proud place on Nixon’s Enemies List.  In his story about the Nixon resignation he wrote the president was leaving office “in disgrace” – a truth an editor cut out.

When a federal court ordered The New York Times to stop printing the Pentagon Papers – the secret history of the Vietnam War – Dudman figured out where to get a copy and wrote stories for the Post-Dispatch.  He was dismayed that a top editor submitted to a court order blocking publication.

On a return trip to Cambodia in 1978, Dudman narrowly escaped death by dodging bullets and hiding behind a bed.  Another reporter on the trip was killed.

On his last day at the Post-Dispatch Dudman covered the attempted assassination of Reagan, even though his leg was in a cast.

Dudman retired from the Post-Dispatch but not from journalism.  He became active in the family radio station in Maine and wrote editorials for the Bangor Daily News until he was 94.

In celebrating the life of this great American reporter, we have linked to obituaries in The New York Times, Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Bangor Daily New.  The Times obit is an extraordinary account of Dudman’s career.

Also published here is an autobiographical story that Dudman wrote in 2004, an appreciation my wife, Margaret Wolf Freivogel, wrote upon Dudman’s retirement from the Bangor paper in 2012 and an article I wrote for the journalism review on his 95th birthday.

Dudman played a special role in Margie and my lives by agreeing in 1980 to bring us into the Washington Bureau sharing a job so we could raise our four children while continuing our reporting.  Dudman was skeptical of the arrangement until he asked the opinion of a good friend – Betty Friedan.

Included in the package are photos from Dudman’s life, including one from this spring when he perked up during hospice as he read in the Times about the incredible news from the new administration in  Washington.  We’d all be better off if Dick Dudman were here to cover the Trump presidency.

Leaks reveal important truths about Trump

By William H. Freivogel


One theme emerging from this historically chaotic week in the Trump White House is the president’s continued insistence that leaks to mainstream media have created a phony scandal about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But President Trump’s effort to downplay the Russia story by delegitimizing the mainstream press seems destined to fail because of three high hurdles.

  1. In trying to persuade Americans the Russia story is fake news, the president contradicts the consensus conclusion of American and other Western intelligence agencies that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed the intelligence operation that hacked Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails as part of an effort to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Trump. The intelligence professionals making this assessment work for the president.
  2. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is an unbiased, professional law-enforcement official. A White House disinformation campaign is not going to derail his investigation into whether the president obstructed justice or his campaign violated election laws by coordinating with the Russians. Mueller’s job is to enforce standards embedded in law, standards immune from White House propaganda.
  3. The New York Times and the Washington Post’s track records for accuracy give great credibility to their disclosures. This is not Fox News, where there was apparent coordination with the White House on its false story on the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich. (The whole point of the Seth Rich story was to blame the DNC for the leak of the emails while clearing the Russians and thereby Trump.)

Consider what the American people know about the Russia story because of leaked stories published in the Times and Post as part of what media critic James Warren describes as “the last great newspaper war.” Here’s what we know but wouldn’t without the leaked stories:

— Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied about his improper contacts with Russia during the last days of the presidential transition. Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates warned the White House about the lies and Flynn’s susceptibility to blackmail on Jan. 26, but the president waited 18 days to remove Flynn, acting only after the Post published the story based on multiple anonymous sources.

— Attorney General Jeff Sessions had failed to disclose to Congress that he had met top Russians officials during the presidential campaign. The information led to Sessions’ eventual recusal, the act that made Trump so angry because Sessions couldn’t protect him from the probe. (In a few days, Sessions will publicize an increase in the number of leak investigations, which may help get him out of Trump’s doghouse.)

— Trump asked FBI Director James B. Comey in an Oval Office meeting in February to “let go” of the criminal investigation of Flynn. The request came after the president had dismissed other witnesses, including Sessions. Comey, after Trump fired him, leaked his account of the meeting, expecting, correctly, it would lead to appointment of a special counsel.

— Trump told top Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting in May that Comey was “crazy, a nut job.” He added, according to a leaked transcript of the encounter, that before firing Comey,“ I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

— Trump asked top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against Comey and the FBI on the Russia investigation, an act reminiscent of President Nixon’s effort to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation of Watergate.

— Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign to get the dirt on Hillary Clinton. “I love it,” he said at the prospect of getting information.

— President Trump took charge of the drafting of Trump Jr.’s first statement on the meeting as the president flew back from the Group of 20 summit in early July. That statement misleadingly stated: “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families….” In ensuing days, Trump Jr. revised the statement several times and finally released emails just before the Times published them. The emails show Trump Jr. was promised “ultra-sensitive “ information on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

The Post’s story this week about Trump’s direct involvement in the misleading statement about the Trump Tower meeting contradicts the repeated claims by the president’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, that Trump had nothing to do with drafting the statement. Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted this week that Trump “weighed in just as any father would.” Hopefully, most fathers wouldn’t help their sons evade the truth.

The development also makes untenable Sekulow’s constant denial that Mueller is investigating the president for obstruction of justice. The Post has reported that Mueller is looking into obstruction and the bare bones of an obstruction case are now in full view:

Ask Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. Fire Comey when he proceeds against Flynn. Ask the intelligence chiefs to push back against the Russia investigation. Direct the drafting of a misleading statement about a meeting confirming Russian’s desire to help Trump by providing dirt on Clinton.

Much of last week’s drama and chaos in the White House was itself connected to White House campaign against leaks. Anthony Scaramucci — whose meteoric rise and burnout set records for brevity as communications director — called New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza last Wednesday night to find out who had leaked that the president and first lady were dining with Fox’s Sean Hannity and former Fox executive Bill Shine.

Of course Lizza wouldn’t disclose his source and that led to the vulgar rant against then Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Chief Strategist Steven Bannon — a rant that Trump initially “loved,” according to the New York Post, but used four days later to remove Scaramucci.

Scaramucci demonstrated his and the White House’s hypocrisy about leaks by first threatening to subject Priebus to an FBI investigation for leaking and then defending his rant by saying he was talking to Lizza off the record — in other words, the man fighting a war against leaks was claiming to be leaking himself.

The truth is that much of the leaking has apparently come from the warring factions in the White House. These leaks generally are not illegal and often in the public interest.

Leaking classified information and information hacked from email is illegal, although printing the information is not. But leaking unclassified information from government sources is legal for both leaker and reporter.

Not all leaks are equally just. WikiLeaks’s publication of hacked DNC emails during the election campaign made it an arm of Russian intelligence agents who apparently had obtained them. Had American media known then what they know now about the extent of Putin’s control of the hacks, respectable media outlets, it is hoped, would have provided more context for the stories they published on the DNC/Clinton emails.

But the leaks disclosing deception and wrongdoing in the Trump White House have provided the American people with important information they need to made a judgment about their president. This is the way in which the press serves as an important constitutional check on the president’s power and abuse of power.

Lost in a credibility canyon


by William H. Freivogel


During the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, the press talked about the credibility gap, first relating to Vietnam and later Watergate.

During the Trump administration there is the credibility canyon.

We begin with a president who has lied more than any other president over such a short time.  Armies of fact trackers work overtime on whoppers like President Obama tapping Trump Tower and the phantom millions of fraudulent voters who denied him a popular vote victory.

Yet even this incredible, uncredible president turns out to be more truthful at times than his lawyers.

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow was entirely unbelievable in his appearances on last Sunday’s TV talk shows when he claimed Trump wasn’t under investigation for obstruction of justice, while the president himself had tweeted he was under investigation.  Sekulow didn’t help himself when he began talking about the obstruction investigation as something that was occurring.

Chris Wallace, the nearest thing Fox has to a professional journalist, called Sekulow on the contradiction and extracted from him the admission he had no way of knowing whether the president is under investigation for obstruction.  No one from the special counsel had talked to Sekulow and it is not standard practice to inform a person he is a target at the outset of an investigation.

Sekulow was reprising unfounded comments from a week earlier on ABC’s “This Week” when he grossly misstated the testimony of fired FBI director James B. Comey.  Sekulow claimed then “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, Comey said no such thing. Comey declined to make a conclusion about whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice, leaving that legal judgment to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.  “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” Comey 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.”

In the week between Sekulow’s two appearances, not only had Trump tweeted he was under investigation, but the Washington Post had reported that five unnamed officials said Mueller was pursuing an obstruction investigation of the president.  Sekulow, however, was undeterred.

Maybe it’s just that the Trump White House believes the president’s supporters will believe anything it puts out.  Or maybe it’s just the bad habit of lawyers thinking they can make an argument for the most spurious assertions.

Sekulow has been a pretty successful advocate on religious freedom issues before the United States Supreme Court. He made a name for himself arguing his Jews For Jesus organization has a religious right to distribute literature at an airport. Later he claimed Muslims don’t have a religious right to build a community center near Ground Zero.

Sekulow once said appearing before the Supreme Court made him feel like Rocky, the heroic prizefighter. But his answers to Wallace were gibberish.  He claimed Comey had violated his lawyer-client relationship with Trump, which probably didn’t exist because Comey was serving as the nation’s top investigator, not its top lawyer.

Sekulow also said Trump had the constitutional power to fire Comey partly because the president was just acting on the recommendation of the Justice Department.  But Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, testified the memo was not written to justify Comey’s firing.

It was pointed out to Sekulow that Trump himself admitted to having decided to fire Comey before the Rosenstein memo and had been thinking about the Russia investigation at the time he fired him.  In fact, it’s pretty clear Trump’s firing of Comey combined with Comey’s account of Trump pressuring him on the Russia investigation are the reasons Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel.

Just as Nixon faced the greatest legal peril for obstructing the investigation of a Watergate burglary he may not have known about, Trump faces greater legal jeopardy for possibly obstructing the Russia investigation than for his aides’ contacts with the Russians during the election.