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Embedded plentifully during the presidential campaign, the press may now leave most consumers in the cold.
I’d been talking to Merrill Brown, director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair, New Jersey State University, about Megyn Kelly’s big move when he parenthetically mentioned an unrelated topic: how the media is “utterly unprepared for the onslaught of news initiatives” from a Trump administration.
Hmmmm. Interesting notion. And it’s one to be taken seriously since Brown is a very smart guy: a former Washington Post reporter, a member of the Court TV startup team for Steve Brill, the founding editor in chief of MSNBC.com, a consultant to A-list media and technology firms and now the leader of a growing journalism program.
His thesis turns on the notion that even the breadth of sophistication at the best organizations — including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — is diluted. Their “levels of expertise” are not what they once were on some beats and, as important, their national bureaus are nowhere near as well-staffed as once upon a time, if staffed at all.
As for regional and local papers, their decline is clear enough. He names names of papers he knows well. Whether it’s New Jersey, Seattle or Chicago, it’s hard to debate him.
That’s relevant because Donald Trump’s administration may dramatically change policies in multiple areas: the environment, social services, labor, education, health care, the United Nations, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, you name it. For sure, those changes will be detailed from a Washington-centric, legislative standpoint as Congress passes laws or the administration promulgates new rules or ditches old ones.
But, after that, he argues, their regional, local (in some cases global) implications will be lost on citizens largely because the media does not have the capability, or willingness, to dissect policy changes on an ongoing basis. It’s much easier to have TV show hosts sit on their butts and beckon pro bono pundits for he-said-she-said debates on the politics of confirming Trump nominees. The other stuff is too expensive and time-consuming.
“Understanding the implications and regional coverage requires one to understand changes, say, in clean air or clean water rules due to radically different views at the EPA or Energy Department,” Brown says. “The media is not prepared to deal with those issues on a national level. Coverage will by and large be limited to inside the Beltway. It’s not capable of understanding the policy implications of massive changes nationwide.”
Will reporters around the country understand what weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau means if they doesn’t know what it does? There’s a whole lot, some of it clearly positive. (HuffPost) Can more than a few tell us what it would mean worldwide if Trump moves to defund and cripple some UN programs?
Brown lived in the Pacific Northwest after heading out to Seattle to start MSNBC.com.
“The old Seattle Post-Intelligencer is gone. It’s now a website. The Seattle Times is hanging on by a thread. So if you live in the Pacific Northwest and want to know the impact on estuary policy of EPA changes, where is that coverage going to come from? Maybe from a weakened Seattle Times. But The Portland Oregonian is lucky if it is barely covering Portland.”
“It’s not that there aren’t bodies to do this work in some cases. But consider all the reporters that TV embedded with all the presidential candidates during the campaign. What if they were now reassigned to cover the environment or education? Especially in TV, it just won’t happen on a regular basis.”
Can one disagree that a disproportionate amount of resources are used to cover politics, not policy? It’s just simpler and sexier. When I looked at The Post-Intelligencer website late Wednesday, the leading stories included “What’s in and what’s out in home decor for 2017” and “Fast food workers of Reddit reveal what you should never order from their restaurant.”
The answer? He argues that, ultimately, one has to raise the profile of this whole matter as a problem, so that folks with tons of money will appreciate the relevance to a democracy of resources to develop alternatives existing coverage.
Yes, there are niche examples of success, like nonprofit ProPublica on a limited number of (top-flight) investigations and the nonprofit Marshall Project on criminal justice issues. But they don’t compensate for the weakened local coverage of many beats. If massive changes come, how many actual experts are there in newsrooms to assess them on a reflexive, systematic and ongoing basis?
When very wealthy folks mull what they can do to improve civic society — as I can attest they do after speaking to many who oversee giant family foundations — who’s got “journalism” anywhere on their prospective to-do list?
Whether it’s private equity firms, philanthropies, foundations or individual moguls, “this needs to be on their radar screen,” argues Brown. But, too often, the press “either puzzles them or they see it as broken.”
Those preconceptions need to be challenged. Imagine what Kelly will be paid by NBC — $15 million, $20 million, maybe even more a year.
Then consider how you might use that same amount to hire and train specialists to regularly report from around the country on the implications of what may come with Trump? Don’t just airlift a generalist reporter from Manhattan to spend a few days in the boonies for a three-minute report — actually embed them across the nation to assess that onerous P-word, namely policy.
Rex Tillerson’s net worth
Jan Rogers Kniffen, a consultant to investors in retail, gave a rather gloomy take on the future of malls on CNBC yesterday, predicting a very sharp decline in stores at malls that won’t be supplanted by new stores. Even factoring the unceasing increase in online shopping, that’s a lot of jobs going down the tubes.
He predicted Sears — not long ago historically the king of the retail hill — will be totally out of the brick and mortar store business by summer. Imagine. Several hours later, Macy’s announced it was slashing 10,000 jobs and closing 68 stores, while Kohl’s also offered gloomy prospects. (The Wall Street Journal)
Let’s see how quickly a President Trump gets those folks back to work. And if that 10,000 number is too big to grasp, check out the tale of the 65 workers who’ll be screwed at the store in Bangor, Maine. (Bangor Daily News)
The White House put out a press release Wednesday about President Obama authoring a piece on his criminal justice reform legacy in the Harvard Law Review.
Putting aside the matter of whether he really had the time to personally write and edit an entire law review article, even stipulating to his smarts, the timing is awkward. He boasts of crime being at historic lows less than a week before returning home for his final big speech in the city which is suffering its highest murder rate in 20 years. It was up 50 percent in 2016 from the year before.
Ongoing boom in fact-checking
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler did yeoman’s work covering campaign untruths. It didn’t take long in 2017 before he was back at it, this time on B.S. claims that the Clinton Foundation paid for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. It started in WikiLeaks and then was picked up by The New York Post before winding up in Brit tabloids, Fox News, “Russian news agencies and various right-leaning websites.”
Fox’s story carried the headline, “Clinton aide says Foundation paid for Chelsea’s wedding.” It got mentioned on MSNBC by conservative talk host Hugh Hewitt. But it’s B.S. (The Washington Post)
NewsOn, a mobile app that brings you live local news, unveiled a new website built for the desktop environment. “The website is almost a retro approach for the company since it was built by creating an app that gleans (with permission of course) from major station groups owned by power players in the tv broadcasting business including ABC, Cox, Hearst broadcast, Media General Raycom and Hubbard broadcasting.” (Streaming Advisor)
A Twitter tweak
Twitter has started “identifying verified users in additional places across its platform. This means tweets from verified accounts will be marked as such in Twitter’s main timeline rather than exclusively on their individual pages.” (Poynter)
Biggest beneficiary? It might be journalists, “given that they constitute about one-fourth of Twitter’s total verified user base. It will now be slightly easier for casual users to determine which information comes from trusted accounts and which do not.”
Meanwhile, the company will need more substantive change to maintain the loyalty of its own executives. The executive running its China operation quit after a mere eight months. “A stream of executives has left the company since it announced layoffs in October amid continued losses. Profitability has long been a challenge for the popular social network and its revenue growth has slowed.” (MarketWatch)
The morning babble
Some days folks go very different ways.
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” with its Pavlovian thrust toward inside politics (as opposed to policy on some days), put Republican moves to ditch Obamacare front and center. NBC’s Kasie Hunt portrayed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as the legislative ringmaster who faces a need for Republicans to find Democrats willing to replace it with something.
CNN’s “New Day” opted again for debate on Russian hacking and how Republicans are divided over it and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. The leaders of the intelligence community head to Capitol Hill this morning to brief leaders and will do the same with Trump tomorrow. Will actual evidence have any impact have on him or, as The New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman suggested, will he “try to pit them against one another?”
“Fox & Friends” was predictable in going for an instant conservative favorite, namely the abuse of a special needs White man in Chicago by Black assailants. Was it a hate crime? Was not declaring it such flatly another tale of political correctness run amok? The right seems intent that it be called same and not treated as if they’d “just kicked garbage cans and ran away,” as one co-host put it. The Chicago Sun-Times writes, “Police officials did not specify which charges they were seeking, though they did not rule out classifying the attack as a hate crime.” (Sun-Times)
Oh, as far as hacking, Fox apes the Trump doubts, with co-host Steve Doocy even floating the notion that maybe the FBI itself “hacked into it,” namely the servers used by John Podesta, the then-top Hillary Clinton campaign official. Yes, the FBI.
Olbermann on Trump, hacking
Keith Olbermann sort of reprises the role of the late Sen. Howard Baker at the Watergate Committee hearings, now wondering what Trump knew about Russian hacking, when and from whom? (GQ) What is the source of his knowledge, or misgivings?
Tip for arts-loving political reporters
“The Nasty Women Art Show,” the result of a social media campaign among artists who hate Trump, will be up at the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York a week from today, or a week before the inauguration. “The multidisciplinary pieces, sent in by a whopping 694 artists, will be suspended from 12-foot tall sculptures that will read ‘Nasty Women’ in hot pink letters.” (Huffington Post)
If Omarosa, why not Coulter in the West Wing?
If Omarosa Manigault, the former “Apprentice” contestant, will be employed as a public liaison in the White House, why not that paragon of moderation, Ann Coulter? Her latest harangue involves alleged hate crimes against Muslims.
“Forget fake news; the real issue is fake ‘hate,'” she opens with characteristic nuance. “Has there been one (1) documented hate crime committed by White people against any hue in the Rainbow Coalition since Nov. 8? That’s out of the 9,456,723 hate crimes alleged by America’s leading hate group, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).”
Not sufficient understatement for you? “The SPLC is to ‘hate’ what Rolling Stone is to rape. It is the biggest peddler of fantasies since Walt Disney.” (Breitbart)
New boss at Wired, opening at The New Yorker
“Scott Dadich, the top editor at Wired magazine and its digital properties for the last four years, is leaving the Conde Nast tech publication.” So he’s out, replaced by Nicholas Thompson, a Wired alum who’s been The New Yorker’s digital editor. So the latter now has a great opening. (Recode)
A fish story
It’s not far-fetched, but it’s a great fish story from Mother Jones: How an Iowa farm family five years ago turned from hogs and soybeans to silvery barramundi. “Part of a hearty species that’s roughly the size of coho salmon and has flesh the flavor of red snapper, the Nelsons’ barramundi start their lives in their native Australia.” (Mother Jones)
“The Nelsons’ operation is so intriguing that in 2014, a pair of Canadian investors named Keith Driver and Leslie Wulf acquired it, changing the name to VeroBlue Farms. (Vero means ‘true’ in Latin.) With the Nelsons still in charge of the day-to-day operations, VeroBlue aims to become North America’s biggest land-based fish farm and the largest domestic producer of barramundi, raising as much as 10 million pounds every year — more than twice as much as anyone else.”
A reporter returns to Beirut
A must-read of the day is in The New Yorker via foreign affairs specialist Robin Wright (one of best and most knowing travel companions ever on presidential treks, I can attest).
She tracks down Hamza Akel Hamieh, who in the early 1980s hijacked six planes (“a record to this day”) to put a world spotlight on the kidnapping of Musa Sadr, his religious leader. Nobody was hurt.
One of his kids joined Lebanon’s military police. A daughter is a court stenographer. Another is in in medical school in Belarus. Hamieh says, “We were young back then, and we would go to the street with a machine gun. We are still at war. It’s an existential fight. But I do it differently now.”
As his youngest son puts it, “My father is still the same. He’s still waiting for Musa Sadr.” (The New Yorker)