MONDAY MORNING MEDIA VII

            Two must-read media columns posted and in print today in The New York Times and Washington Post: Ben Smith’s Media Equation column about the current, idiosyncratic iteration of the historic Harper’s magazine; Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post column about Elizabeth Becker’s new book on three groundbreaking women reporters in Vietnam entitled “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.”

            Both columns are good; each has its own oddity.

            Ben Smith (no relation) has carved out new territory with his weekly column on media matters in the NYT’s Business section, reporting on the fast-changing world of media. Today, he gives a vivid account of the venerable, 170-year-old Harper’s under the eccentric stewardship of its publisher/owner John R. MacArthur, the heir to the real estate and insurance fortune that funds the MacArthur “genius” grants. 

MacArthur has compelled his small, young, underpaid staff to continue to come to the Harper’s office in Manhattan during the Covid crackdown and has recently drawn attention with the magazine’s open assault on what he sees as the “intolerant climate” of political correctness and cancel culture. This, in a magazine that has historically been among the most liberal voices, is startling, but not radical. As one columnist described it, Harpers today is “not anti-woke, but simply not woke.”

Today’s Media Equation column is an excellent read. The oddity that caught my eye was in the print edition, delivered daily to the doorstep of ancients like me. The headline on the business page front reads: “Inside the Venerable Harper’s, Media’s oddest workplace.” The headline on the jump on page two reads: “Inside the Venerable Harper’s, Media’s Weirdest Workplace.” Evidently, whoever wrote the headlines (not a copy reader, The Times is doing without those these days,) felt “oddest” was understating it.

In the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan offers a bright and positive review of Elizabeth Becker’s account of the Vietnam reportage of three women: Frances FitzGerald, Kate Webb and Catherine Leroy. It is a fine book by Becker, herself an outstanding war correspondent in Cambodia, but it all but ignores the extraordinary Gloria Emerson, who joined the Saigon bureau of The New York Times in 1969-1970 when I was the Bureau Chief. Gloria, who passed away in 2004, provided The Times’ readers with marvelous, graceful accounts of the human cost of that fruitless war.

Gloria Emerson should be featured in any account of women on the war. But that’s okay. She wrote her own book, “Winners & Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from the Vietnam War,” that won the National Book Award in the 1970’s. It was reissued on the 50th anniversary of the war.

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA VI

   True confession: I actually watched most of Donald Trump’s rambling, repetitious parody of himself before the CPAC conference yesterday afternoon. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion: dreadful, but impossible to look away as it is happening.

   I had to search to find it live. Neither CNN nor MSNBC carried it in real time, showing more news judgement than they did during Trump’s 2016 campaign, when his self-indulgent rallies consistently boosted their ratings. Fox, of course, featured it yesterday, along with C-SPAN, Newsmax TV, BBC News 24, BBC World and the Murdochian Sky News.

   The New York Times had a straight-ahead report of the speech on page A14 of this morning’s print edition, along with a sidebar noting that Trump had won the support of “only 68%” of the slavishly loyal CPAC attendees for another run for the brass ring in 2024. 

   The Washington Post led its Monday edition with a one-column “news” story noting that Trump had ruled out a third party, sought to cement control of the GOP and – surprise – hinted at a 2024 comeback. As for the speech itself, the estimable E.J. Dionne Jr. got it right when he wrote: “The act was old. The self-involvement was as intense as ever.”

   Even more so, I’d say. The obvious purpose of the speech was to generate contributions to the two new PACs Trump has created ostensibly to finance his political reincarnation (and cover his day-to-day expenses,) and to remind the Fox News regulars that he is not going away. The 45th president showed up an hour late and went on for nearly two hours reading from a teleprompter and ad-libbing his golden oldies.

   It was a pathetic performance, as you might expect. CNN and MSNBC got it exactly right with their measured, arms-length treatment. As did The Post’s editorial page headline over E.J. Dionne’s column: “The GOP: Trapped in Trump’s Rendezvous with Yesterday.”

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA V

   Not long ago, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, the Trump Whisperer, posted an innocuous tweet about squabbling within the Trump Circle. It produced a furious response on Twitter from people sick of hearing about Donald Trump, challenging Maggie to give it up, stop reporting on Trump; he’s finished, so are you, etc. One reader threatened to drop Maggie’s account if she continued.

   Big mistake, in my view. I think it is vitally important to learn the full story of what happened during the chaotic days of the Trump Administration. 

   Maggie has contracted to produce a book on Trump, due out in 2022, so yes, she has a reason to keep reporting on Trump and his circle and all the wacky things that went on before, during and after his presidency. But it is also her job. The Times has smartly assigned her to the politics desk to track the Trump post-presidency and its impact on the runup to the 2022 elections. As her 1.7 million Twitter followers and Times readers know, Maggie has been covering Trump for years, has sources inside the Trump World that other reporters can only dream of and is a fine writer. (She is also a second-generation Timesian, the daughter of the estimable columnist, Clyde Haberman.)

   But the issue here is not Maggie Haberman or even her cranky Twitter followers. It is about the public’s need to fully understand just what happened during the Trump years: the chaos, the confusion, the gross mismanagement, the corruption and the cynical, self-centered politics of the 45th president and the Republican members of Congress that enabled him for what they believed was their own political benefit. It is an extraordinary story and at this point, we don’t know the half of it.

   Reporting and reconstructing that history is a huge, costly and complicated job, but one that media organizations must tackle. There are 74 million Americans out there who need to know precisely who and what they voted for in November. And there are scores of former officials and insiders in Trump world who will be willing to talk now that they are out of office.

   Media: get to it.

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA IV

   Three recent, controversial “resignations” from The New York Times display a curious pattern of behavior by top management, namely, 180-degree reversals, decisions made one way and, after protest from some staff members, made the other.  The pattern underscores the changing culture at the Grey Lady and to a degree, in journalism today.

   The three compelled “resignations” were those of  Opinion Editor James Bennet after publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s provocative column urging military action against racial protestors; audio journalist Andy Mills in the wake of the flawed podcast The Caliphate; and Donald G. McNeil Jr., the much-praised science reporter who apparently used the n-word in a discussion with students about racist language on an overseas Times Journey in 2019. And, in each case,  management investigated, resolved the issue to its satisfaction and pressed ahead with valued employees who were “disciplined” in various ways. In each case, a group of staff members subsequently objected, their objections became public, and the top leadership reversed their initial decisions, sending the staffers packing. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

   Each of the three cases is different, and complicated in different ways. And, in each case, management has indicated that there is more to the story than has been made public. Taking the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, and executive editor, Dean Baquet, at their word, as I do, it is still hard to understand the reversals. Did new information come to light? Were lies uncovered? Or, did the embarrasment of the internal revolt becoming public prove to be too much? 

   Sensitive personnel decisions like these are normally kept private, but these cases have attracted so much attention and caused so much controversy, that The Times needs to come clean with the whole story. 

   In which case, what does the controversy portend for the future? More sensitivity to racial and other issues? More consultation with staff, whose views have been largely ignored in the past? A management backlash? A staff revolt?

   What is clear is that the fuss over the McNeil case is not over. Witness Ben Smith’s lengthy Media Equation column about it today and the fact that McNeil says he is not free to discuss the matter fully until his separation from the paper becomes final on March 1.

   Stay tuned.

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA III

In case you missed it, amidst Tom Brady’s Superbowl triumph and the upcoming second impeachment trial, The New York Times has posted some extraordinary revenue and subscription numbers for 2020 that point the way to a prosperous 21st century for some newspapers.

Yes, newspapers. Some newspapers. The venerable Grey Lady’s earnings report documents 7.5 million digital and print subscriptions at the end of 2020. The paper is well on its way to its stated goal of 10 million total subscriptions by 2020 and at this rate, could even exceed it. Further proof of the old adage that bad news is good news for news organizations and a disastrous year like 2020 can be a bonanza.

(Of that 7.5 million, a paltry 833,000 are print subscriptions purchased by ancients like me who still enjoy the tactile pleasure delivered to my door each morning.)

This subscription boom took place as total NYT digital and print advertising revenue for 2020 fell by a perilous 26 per cent to just under $400 million. Most of that loss was in print advertising, which declined 38 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2020. In a role reversal, 65 per cent of ad revenue came from digital. The tail is now wagging the dog.

So, the broader pattern is clear: subscription revenue up, advertising revenue down. Since the days of the penny press, the income publishers received from subscriptions was almost an afterthought. Now digital subscribers appear to be a key to economic survival.

Of course, this lifeline is only available to papers like The Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and others that have built their websites into rich, reliable, appealing smorgasbords of news and features. The Times does especially well with a variety of stand-alone digital offerings like cooking and crossword apps, podcasts and video. The Washington Post has added live interviews with newsmakers and panels to its regular fare.

Bottom line for newspapers in 2021: Digital is the present and future; print is fading fast. Something gained, something lost.

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA (Early snowy edition)

It has been a relief, frankly, to be spared during the past 10 days or so the obsessive coverage of Donald J. Trump that dominated American media for the last four years. We’ve done quite well, thank you, without breathless reporting of nonsensical tweets, wall-to-wall broadcasting of his rallies and penetrating analyses of White House infighting. We don’t even know what Jared and Ivanka have been up to.

This respite will be brief, of course. Once the Senate begins arguments in the trial spawned by Trump’s second impeachment, the headlines will again focus on the 45th President and his actions around January 6. And, no doubt, Maggie Haberman or some other well-sourced observer of the Trump phenomenon will soon give us an inside look at the mood and manners at Mar-a-Lago since January 20. (The most memorable so far: the small plane that flew up and down the beach that day trailing a sign that read: “World’s Worst President!”)

That’s all well and good and as it should be. But I am waiting for the kind of revealing, in-depth reporting of what actually went on during the four-year nightmare known as The Trump Presidency. The best early example is the two-column lead of the January 31 st edition of The New York Times: “As Far-Right Peril Brewed, U.S. Eyed Threat Left.” The subhead explained: “Trump’s insistence on Danger of Antifa Led Federal Officials to Shift Resources.”

Read it and you’ll discover how Trump’s all-out assault on the so-called Radical Left caused boot-licking federal law enforcement officers to look left when the genuine threats were rising on the right. You’ll read how Federal prosecutors and agents felt pressure from the top to uncover a left-wing extremist conspiracy that never materialized. And – no surprise – you’ll learn that Attorney General William P. Barr enthusiastically endorsed the president’s politically inspired attack on the left.

In the coming days and weeks, I expect we’ll read more such shocking inside stories of the behind-the-scene activities of the Trump Administration. The accounts will come out and be confirmed as liberated senior officials and aides feel free to tell us all what really happened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The stories may not come as a total surprise, but they are history and they are important.

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA


The kerfuffle over The New York Times parting company with journalist Lauren Wolfe after her tweet describing the “chills” she felt as President-elect Biden’s plane landed at Andrews on the eve of the inauguration misses the point. (For the record, The Times maintains that the separation was not the result of her tweet, implying that it had other problems with her performance.)
The problem with her tweet is that her “chills” do not meet the minimum standard of news. The reader doesn’t care about her chills. If another bystander professed to feel chills, that might qualify as a modest bit of color. But Lauren’s chills were beside the point.
The controversy, to the degree it is one, underscores the thorny problems posed by journalists tweeting on the job. First Amendment protections should and do apply, but spare us your chills, Lauren.

Real Change, or a Mirage?

   With the late and unlamented 2020 receding from mind and memory, it is tempting to hope that the racial reckoning the country experienced  in that not very good year in the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others will bring about real and lasting change in racial attitudes and our national culture.

   There is no guarantee, of course, given our long and painful history. The real change hoped for after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots and disruptions of the 1960’s and 1970’s largely evaporated in the reactionary 1980’s. Why should the 2020’s be different?

   There are some hopeful signs:  the reach and impact of the Black Lives Matter and Me, too movements,  the greater sensitivity and inclusion in everything from President-elect Joe Biden’s vice presidential and cabinet selections to popular culture, advertising, corporate boardrooms, politics and, finally, believe-it-or-not, media. You see it everywhere, from the profusion of minority anchors on television to the reporters on the beat; from the increasing numbers of African-Americans featured in mass advertising to the promotion of women to  the top executive ranks. 

   One huge breakthrough that got insufficient attention in December, 2020,  was the elevation of Rashida Jones, a 39-year-old, African-American television executive to the presidency of MSNBC. As the first Black woman to take charge of a major television news network, Ms. Jones is shattering a glass ceiling and joining a former fraternity that has been almost exclusively White and mostly male. There are notable exceptions, like Susan Zirinsky at the head of CBS News, but they are not the rule.

   Rashida Jones rocketed up the executive ranks, producing presidential debates and town halls, overseeing daytime news coverage for MSNBC and breaking news and specials for NBC’s broadcast news divisions. But her selection as president would not have been a given prior to the traumatic racial justice and cultural tumult of 2020. Now it seems natural, appropriate and, if anything, overdue. 

   Old habits and attitudes die hard, however: The New York Times article announcing her appointment not only was inside the paper at the bottom of a page, the piece devoted most space to the career and favorite pastimes of Phil Griffin, the white male she was replacing. Griffin is a fine fellow, apparently leaving on his own timetable, but really…

   Another media breakthrough in late December occurred not among the coastal elites but in Kansas City, where one of the Midwest’s most influential newspapers apologized for decades of racist coverage of its own community. In a striking letter to readers, Mike Fannin, editor of the venerable Kansas City Star, wrote that the newspaper “disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black (note the capitalization) Kansas citizens.” He wrote that the paper had “reinforced Jim Crow law and redlining.”   Fannin pointed to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the firestorm that followed as the impetus for what he promised would be an “honest examination” of the paper’s past in its own pages.

   As the readers of The Annapolis Capital read last June when it recalled its own racist writings, The Star was not the first newspaper to re-examine its past performance, but it was impressive nonetheless.

    Three months earlier, the publisher of a larger and influential U.S. newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, acknowledged its own “blind spots” on race and promised to openly acknowledge its past biases.  Its public apology said the staff was beginning the process of “acknowledging” past biases and promised that its newsroom will not tolerate prejudice. This stood out even in the in the strongly blue, supposedly progressive  California.

   And, just this week, another change in the media world: the estimable Mark Shields, who stepped down after 33 years from his regular Friday night punditry post opposite David Brooks on The PBS NewsHour, was replaced by Jonathan Capehart, a 53-year-old, Black and openly gay man. Capehart, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing at The Washington Post, will give the Friday night feature a different look.

  Will the Black Lives Matter and Me, Too movements blossom further in 2021? Will the transformation in the media world and beyond continue? 

   As they say on television, stay tuned.

An Unsolicited Book Review…

   “Disloyal, a Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump,” by Michael Cohen is a trashy book, written in prison in a trashy, Brooklynese style, by  a convicted felon.  And yet, especially in its early chapters, it tells the reader a great deal about former President Trump.

   Cohen’s central thesis, reinforced again and again over its 300-plus pages, is that the craven, narcissistic, grifter that he worked for on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower is the exact same person that occupied the Oval Office until Jan. 20, 2021. Trump, he argues, is Trump, then and now. 

   He is the same Trump that maneuvered endlessly in his Trump Tower days to promote himself in the tabloids and on talk radio and TV. Cohen illustrates his theory with all sorts of inside accounts of the shady “deals” Trump promoted over the years. “Disloyal,” is certainly not literature, but it has the ring of truth. Cohen’s book probably will not change your view of Donald J. Trump; more likely it will reinforce it.

AN UNSOLICITED BOOK REVIEW

   “Disloyal, a Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump,” by Michael Cohen is a trashy book, written in prison in a trashy, Brooklynese style, by  a convicted felon.  And yet, especially in its early chapters, it tells the reader a great deal about President Trump.

   Cohen’s central thesis, reinforced again and again over its 300-plus pages, is that the craven, narcissistic, grifter that he worked for on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower is the exact same person that occupies the Oval Office today. Trump, he argues, is Trump, then and now. 

   He is the same Trump that maneuvered endlessly in his Trump Tower days to promote himself in the tabloids and on talk radio and TV. Cohen illustrates his theory with all sorts of inside accounts of the shady “deals” Trump promoted over the years. “Disloyal,” is certainly not literature, but it has the ring of truth. Cohen’s book probably will not change your view of Donald J. Trump; more likely it will reinforce it.