The neglected world of serious media analysis and criticism lost two of its most articulate and thoughtful voices over the weekend.
Brian Stelter was let go as host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, the three-decade-old Sunday morning show, which was cancelled as part of the ongoing revamping of the network’s lineup. Margaret Sullivan stepped down as media columnist for The Washington Post, ending a 42-year newspaper career to teach and write.
Both will be sorely missed by readers and viewers who value the truth.
In the midst of a busy, newsy week full of shootings, assassinations and resignations, The New York Times’s redoubtable Michael S. Schmidt had a remarkable page one piece on Thursday, July 7, about one of the great “coincidences” of the Trump Era: how two of his perceived enemies suddenly found themselves being audited by the IRS.
James B. Comey, the FBI director Donald Trump fired in 2017, and Comey’s Deputy, Andrew G. McCabe, whom Trump fired later, were subsequently selected for the most invasive type of random audit carried out by the IRS, an audit referred to as “an autopsy without benefit of death.” Neither incurred much tax liability as a result; Comey even got a modest refund.
A coincidence? A one-in-30,000 happenstance? Hardly, even though the taxmen insisted that politics and presidential vengeance had nothing to do with the audits. Of course, their boss, the 45th President, Donald J. Trump, had railed privately and publicly about both men accusing them of treason and calling for their prosecution.
Schmidt’s thoroughly-documented piece brought back the memory of another “coincidence” decades ago in the Vietnam War era when I was the New York Times’ Saigon Bureau Chief and later Diplomatic Correspondent covering Richard Nixon’s foreign policy from Washington. I wrote several pieces criticizing the conduct of the war and Nixon’s diplomatic strategy, articles that annoyed the President repeatedly. He rails against them, and me, in the famous Watergate Tapes.
Then — surprise —I was audited by the IRS three years running. Then, as now, no political motive or presidential recrimination was ever publicly suggested. I didn’t even make the famous Nixon “enemies list” as far as I know. Instead, the government poured over my reporter’s salary and modest income looking for…who knows what? The undeniable fact was the three consecutive audits followed my articles that annoyed the President.
Sheer coincidence? All in the interest in protecting the U.S. treasury from fraud, no matter how minor? That’s a stretch. Every bit as coincidental as the audits of Comey and McCabe, I’d say.
Footnote: The three years of audits concluded with me having to pay a few hundred dollars in additional tax because the IRS determined that the considerable moving costs paid by The Times to ship me and my family to the Middle East and Far East and home had to be considered income to me. The Times legal department objected to that conclusion, but lost.
Last Wednesday was a sad day in Washington – the occasion of the funeral of Mark Shields. Mark was one of the most loved and widely respected political commentators on U.S. politics. Mark was a friend of mine from Notre Dame days. He graduated a year ahead of me, but I knew him well as a jolly, smart, wise cracking Hall mate of a Scranton friend with whom I spent many hours on campus.
Most American TV viewers will remember Mark for his 33 years on the PBS Newshour exchanging views with co-hosts who were more conservative than he. Rather than sharing his obituary from either the Times or the Post, I will pay tribute to him today by quoting from them and other sources illustrating his perceptive and entertaining commentaries on politics.
A Self Effacing , Somewhat Successful Political Consultant
He had successes, like helping John J. Gilligan become governor of Ohio in 1970 and Kevin H. White win re-election as mayor of Boston in 1975. But he was certainly no stranger to defeat; he worked for men who vainly pursued national office in the 1970s, among them Edmund S. Muskie, R. Sargent Shriver and Morris K. Udall. “At one point,” Mr. Shields said, “I held the N.C.A.A. indoor record for concession speeches written and delivered.” (Times obit)
Politics, he maintained, was “a contact sport, a question of accepting an elbow or two,” and losing was “the original American sin.” “People come up with very creative excuses why they can’t be with you when you’re losing,” he said. “Like ‘my nephew is graduating from driving school,’ and ‘I’d love to be with you but we had a family appointment at the taxidermist.’” (Times obit)
On Potomac and Presidential Fever
Mr. Shields noticed that many candidates for federal office ran on a platform of how much they despised Washington. But once elected, they tended to stick around. He quoted a line from Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) as if it were an immutable law: “There are only two ways people leave Washington. By the ballot box or the undertaker’s box.” (Post obit)
“they get that bug, and as the late and very great Mo Udall, who sought that office, once put it, the only known cure for the presidential virus is embalming fluid.” (Times obit)
Lessons from the Marines
“Would not our country be a more just and human place if the brass of Wall Street and Washington and executive suites believed that ‘officers eat last’?” (Creators.com, 2010)
Why God Made Whiskey
There were bumps along the road, including a period of excessive drinking. “If I wasn’t an alcoholic, I was probably a pretty good imitation of one,” he told C-SPAN, adding: “I have not had a drink since May 15, 1974. It took me that long to find out that God made whiskey so the Irish and the Indians wouldn’t run the world.” (Times obit)
Hard on Republicans
Of President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Shields said dismissively that “the toughest thing he’s ever done was to ask Republicans to vote for a tax cut.” The House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was “an invertebrate”; Senator Lindsey Graham made Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s loyal sidekick, “look like an independent spirit.” (Times obit)
Hard on Democrats and the Clintons
…Mr. Shields could nevertheless be a scourge to his fellow Democrats. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, he quipped that “George Washington was the president who could never tell a lie; Richard Nixon was the president who could never tell the truth; and Bill Clinton is the president who cannot tell the difference.” (Post obit)
…”I have been in this town long enough to remember when the Lincoln bedroom was used for sex and the Oval office for fund raising.” (My personal recollection)
In one of his final appearances on “NewsHour” in 2020, Mr. Shields noted that the Democratic Party had traditionally been the political home of lunch-pail, working-class White men. The problem facing the party in the 21st century, he said, “is one of attitude as much as it is of platform. I mean, the Democrats, that were once a shot-and-a-beer party have become a sauvignon blanc party arguing about which wine is more sensitive.” (Post obit)
Civility in Political Discourse
In 2012, he and (David) Brooks received an award for “civility in public life,” presented by Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College. Accepting the honor, Mr. Shield said he sought to remember that “in every discussion that the person on the other side probably loves their country as much as you love our country; that they care about their children’s and grandchildren’s future as much as you do; that they treasure the truth as much as you do; and that you don’t demonize somebody on the other side.” (Post obit)
Noble Calling of Politics
In his book, Shields wrote, “Politics — which is nothing less than the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate, competing interests — is an important public occupation and ought to be respected.” Such an attitude has gained him the respect of even such conservative politicians as Senator Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican. (Notre Dame Magazine, Autumn 1993)
Still, for all their foibles, he had an abiding admiration for politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, simply for entering the arena. “When you dare to run for public office, everyone you ever sat next to in high school homeroom or double-dated with or car-pooled with knows whether you won or, more likely, lost,” he said. “The political candidate dares to risk the public rejection that most of us will go to any length to avoid.” (Times obit)
Some of his happiest moments, he said, were when he worked on political campaigns: “You think you are going to make a difference that’s going to be better for the country, and especially for widows and orphans and people who don’t even know your name and never will know your name. Boy, that’s probably as good as it gets.” (Times obit)
Back to Notre Dame
Notre Dame acknowledged Mark’s contributions to America’s political discourse on several occasions. Father John Jenkins, the University’s President, was present on the altar during the funeral.
In 1997, Notre Dame awarded Mark an honorary degree. In his remarks to the graduates, he asked a question that had been neglected by Biblical scholars for over two thousand years: “did the Corinthians ever write back?”
The Notre Dame magazine feature story on Mark in 1993 contained a masterful caricature that graphically foretold his impact in Washington and on the Hill. I share it with you all today to enjoy one good, last laugh with Mark.
The New York Times is getting curiouser and curiouser. Not only is the sports section absorbed with soccer and sexual harassment scandals near and far, now the news department seems short on news, especially spot news.
The result: the Memorial Day edition, print and digital, contained nothing about the violent rioting in Jerusalem on Sunday. Flag-wrapped Israeli nationalists provoked clashes with Palestinians by celebrating Jerusalem Day – the anniversary on the Hebrew calendar of Israel’s 1967 capture of the entire city – by marching through the Muslim quarter of the Old City, hurling stones and fighting as they went. One large group of Orthodox Jews chanted “Death to Arabs” as they entered the Old City. Scores were injured on both sides and tensions remained high as night fell.
Nothing new in Arabs and Jews fighting in Jerusalem, you might say. True, but a year ago the Jerusalem Day clashes provoked an 11-day mini-war in Gaza and tension has been rising throughout the West Bank in recent weeks. At least 19 Israelis have been killed; over 35 Palestinians have died during recent Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank.
Surely Jerusalem Day violence merited some space in today’s paper. Given the current tension, there should have been a staff-written account from Jerusalem in print and online. But, of course, it was a three-day holiday weekend; maybe the senior editors who can recognize Jerusalem and the West Bank on a map were in The Hamptons for the weekend.
A curiosity: twice recently The New York Times has devoted copious space to two huge, sprawling take-outs or investigative pieces on two subjects that their regular readers already know or couldn’t care less about:
A remarkable book-length analysis in three articles over two days into the racist and deeply reactionary views of Tucker Carlson.
A page-one opus yesterday entitled: “The Secrets Ed Koch Carried,” with the subhead: “Friends Open Up About the Private Strain of the Former Mayor’s Life as a Gay Man.”
Excuse me, but Tucker Carlson is a widely-known manipulator of hapless Fox viewers and Trump supporters who can’t seem to separate fact from fiction or don’t try; while the vast majority of New York Times readers have long regarded the late Mayor Koch as gay. The man died in 2013, an era when a politician’s sexual orientation was a bigger issue than today.
Both projects were deeply researched and smoothly written, but what, exactly, is new here? OK, I didn’t realize how relentless Carlson has been in pushing his twisted ideas on his popular Fox broadcast, Tucker Carlson Tonight. Point taken. Seems some three million feckless souls tune in most nights and actually believe his nonsense. But multiple full pages of copy when Ukraine, Supreme Court leaks and a teetering economy are competing for our attention?
Ed Kock was gay? Hello? That’s news? The multi-page article did support its subhead, by detailing the toll his homosexuality had taken on the former Mayor back in the day when this was a problem for elected officials. Truly sad. But news? Relevant to exactly what?
Taken together, the two projects suggest that an executive decision has been taken at The Grey Lady to commit staff and resources and space to the kind of deep background pieces long featured in The New Yorker and Atlantic magazines.
It’s the subjects that are curious.
A Postscript to MONDAY MORNING MEDIA XV: Just yesterday, March 28, 2022, as I was applauding Nobel laureate Dimitry Muratov for continuing to publish his crusading Novaya Gazette in the face of Russia’s crackdown on independent media, he received a second warning from the Kremlin’s regulator that his paper was violating the emergency press law. The warning was simple: shut the paper down, or its license would be revoked. With no choice, Muratov did as he was ordered, although he promised to remain in Russia and find other means to convey the truith of what is happening in Ukraine. How and when he might manage that is far from clear. The impact: the Kremlin has now succeeded in silencing the last independent voice in Russia. Now the official version of the “special military operation” in Ukraine is the only version readily available to the Russian people.
Two Profiles in Courage that should not get lost in the ocean of coverage about Russia’s brutal war in and against Ukraine:
Dimitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor of Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian newspaper that is bravely continuing to publish under Vladimir Putin’s draconian new press restrictions. Under the law passed earlier this month, merely describing the “special military operation” in Ukraine as what it is – a war – can get you 15 years in prison. Nonetheless, Muratov has continued to publish accounts of the war that are full of ellipses and blanks that the readers can easily fill in for themselves. So far, the paper continues to publish and Muratov remains free. Stay tuned.
Marina Ovsyannikova, the striking blonde producer for the Kremlin-controlled television Channel 1, who bravely jumped in front of the camera during the widely-watched evening news brandishing a sign that read: “NO WAR, they’re lying to you here.” She was taken into custody, but released after paying a fine for her protest and is at least temporarily free. Remember her
4h · For your 2022 reading list, let me urge you to start with, or quickly get to, “Four Wars/Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House”, by Terence Smith. Terry is an old friend; we first met when I was on Jimmy Carter’s White House staff and he was WH Bureau Chief for the New York Times. In that capacity, Terry interviewed me a few times, always or almost always on a background basis. He also wrote, based on a lead from the WH press office, of my soon to be announced designation as one of two White House Deputy Chiefs of Staff (in 1979).Years later, when he was dating and then married my good friend and colleague, Susy Elfving (going back to my days on Capitol Hill with then-Representative Norman Y. Mineta), we begin to see each other socially. And we have since spent many afternoons and evenings together eating and drinking and talking. In addition, drawing on exceptional skills honed on CBS and PBS, Terry also agreed to serve as the on-camera narrator in a wonderful little documentary which I helped produce: “Time and Chance: The Political Education of Harry McPherson.”That is all to say, we’ve had many conversations, and traded lots of stories. But, wow!!! The stories told his book are 99.9% new to me, and every single one of them is riveting. His accounts as a war correspondent (Six Day and Yom Kippur wars in the Middle East, Vietnam and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974), are particularly gripping. They add immensely to anyone’s understanding of 20th century history. It is also a fun read—-frankly, it is one of those books I hated to see come to an end. I recommend it highly.
Strewn across Terry Smith’s kitchen table are three newspapers. Dozens more are stacked neatly nearby. One is The Capital, the local paper Smith has read daily since 2014, when he moved to his home in Eastport overlooking Spa Creek. The others include The Washington Post and The New York Times. ADVERTISING
Smith, 83, knows he’s a dwindling breed of news consumer who still gets the paper delivered to his door every day. Yet, what else can be expected from a retired reporter whose father is the legendary sports columnist Red Smith and who spent a five-decade career in print and broadcast journalism crisscrossing the globe, covering wars, high-stakes political affairs, natural disasters, and, most importantly, the people who were directly affected by those events? He wants news the old-fashioned way. While Smith’s byline no longer fills the pages of the Times, where he worked from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, he’s found another way to tell a story. [Most read] Annapolis encourages outdoor dining amid COVID surge, declares 30-day state of emergency » In October, he published a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House,” that recounts his storied career and explores the upheaval the journalism industry has undergone from the middle of last century through today. PAID POSTWhat Is This? Can prostate cancer screenings cause more harm than good? Can prostate cancer screenings cause more harm than good? About one in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. Sixty percent of cases are diagnosed in men who are 65…
SEE MORE Sponsored Content by University of Maryland Faculty Physicians, Inc As the title suggests, Smith’s career took him to war zones in Israel for the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars; stints in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia during the height of the Vietnam War; and, finally, on the island of Cyprus during a Turkish invasion. Despite serving in the Army reserve in his 20s, Smith never wanted to be a war reporter. His newspaper employers had other ideas. Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 4-year-old Anastasia on Monday, December 20, 2021. Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 4-year-old Anastasia on Monday, December 20, 2021. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette) “There’s a wider world and people have different ways of working out their lives and solving their problems, and that fascinated me,” Smith said in an interview at his home. But, he said, “If you go to Israel as one of your assignments and Saigon to another one, the war finds you.” Over the years, Smith’s work brought him in close contact with Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and numerous other world leaders. In one of the book’s most riveting anecdotes, Smith tells of hearing the news that Robert F. Kennedy, then a presidential candidate, had been assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968. On a tip from the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Smith rushed to the home of the assassin’s father, who lived in the West Bank, and managed to interview the man who had no idea what his son had done. [Most read] Annapolis encourages outdoor dining amid COVID surge, declares 30-day state of emergency » “There was no time to prepare,” Smith said. “I assumed he knew [about the accusations against his son]. It quickly became apparent that he didn’t.” The book’s origins For years, Smith, who retired in 2006, had mulled writing a memoir. He had lived in and around Washington, D.C., for much of his later career but finally moved to a home on the West River with his second wife, Susy, before landing in Annapolis. Two friends, Patrick and Catherine Stewart Roache, both authors who hold doctorates, encouraged him to put pen to paper after hearing his stories over glasses of wine in the cockpit of his sailboat Winsome on the Chesapeake Bay. There were so many stories worth telling, like the morning in June 1967 when he woke with a hangover to a call from his Times editor telling him Israel and Egypt were going to war, and the interview he conducted the following year with Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who accurately predicted that the U.S. “would be forced to take your troops and leave Vietnam.” Seven years later, America would do just that. Aided by decades of notes and clips from his career, and a needle-sharp memory that allows him to recall names, places and dates like they occurred yesterday, Smith set out to write about his career that began as a local news reporter for the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut and included stops at the Fort Dix Post, New York Herald Tribune and the Times before he jumped into broadcasting with CBS News and PBS NewsHour in the mid-1980s. Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” e is photographed outside his home, with a view of Spa Creek and St. Mary’s Church on Monday, December 20, 2021. Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” e is photographed outside his home, with a view of Spa Creek and St. Mary’s Church on Monday, December 20, 2021. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette) When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020, all of the speaking engagements he had planned for the rest of the year evaporated. [Most read] Navy football player Xavier McDonald overcame difficult upbringing to earn service academy appointment » Writing the book became “a COVID creation,” Smith said. “I had no excuse.” Wanderlust gene Smith’s itch to explore the world began at an early age. Born in Philadelphia and raised in New York, Smith was taken by his parents on a six-week trip as a teenager to Europe to attend the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. It was in those weeks trekking around Finland with his father that a passion awoke inside him that he now calls his wanderlust gene. “I really got interested in travel, and I very much wanted to go overseas as a journalist,” Smith said. “That idea, the romance if you will, of being a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper.” Early in his career, Smith was one of five family members to work for New York newspapers in the 1960s, including his father; his uncle Art wrote a fishing and hunting column for the New York Herald Tribune and his cousin Pat covered sports at the New York World-Telegram and The Sun. Another cousin, Georgia, later became a features writer for the Times. [Most read] Clydesdales returning to West Annapolis ahead of Military Bowl next month » His father, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his sports commentary, never urged his son to follow in his footsteps, Smith said, but he was delighted all the same when Smith got a job with the Stamford Advocate in 1958. “I went home and told my father I was a newspaperman. ‘Oh lord,’ he said in mock horror. ‘Another wasted life!’” Smith wrote in the memoir, which can be purchased at bookstores and online. Sprinkled between tales of mortars landing outside his apartment in Saigon and temporary capture during an armed conflict in Cyprus, Smith shares major life events, including his lifelong friendship with his father; his marriage to his first wife, Ann; the birth of his two children, Christopher and Elizabeth; and first meeting his second wife, Susy, in a Washington bar. Susy Smith served in the Carter administration and would go on to work for several other elected officials before becoming chief of staff to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley in 2018. The two married in 1997. Hope for local news Smith’s memoir could be read as a personal history of the journalism industry. [Most read] ‘He wasn’t even home eight hours and he was gone’ » From the highly lucrative 1960s when budgets were bursting, thanks to exploding ad revenue that allowed newspapers to employ hundreds of journalists and send them all over the globe, to the contraction of the industry that began in the 1970s and has continued today. Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 9-year-old Ulla on Monday, December 20, 2021 Terry Smith, an Annapolis resident and longtime journalist for the New York Times and other news organizations, has written a memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.” He is photographed in his home, here with one of his borzois, or Russian sighthounds, 9-year-old Ulla on Monday, December 20, 2021 (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette) In the mid-1980s, Smith made the unusual but not unprecedented decision to jump from print to broadcast journalism, where he worked for 13 years with CBS News and “PBS NewsHour.” He went on to win two Emmy Awards after initially feeling like a fish out of water in front of the camera.
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Though he has been out of the news business for about 15 years, Smith is still a voracious news consumer and occasional writer. He remains positive about the future of journalism despite the upheaval and contraction it has seen during and after his career. Between 2014 and 2018, Smith wrote a monthly opinion column for The Capital and has penned freelance pieces for the Smithsonian and other publications. He now serves on several boards and nonprofits, including the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. During his career, Smith was often faced with the existential question of whether journalism mattered, he said, pointing to examples of publishing bloody accounts of war only to have nothing change and the conflict carry on. Still, he closes his memoir with a sense of hope for the industry he gave his life to, noting that “everything is changing — and will keep changing — but not everything is lost.”