a Wednesday, December 4th, 2019

As Kamala Harris drops out, critics decry a double standard

Over Thanksgiving, the Washington Post and the New York Times both published brutal stories about the state of Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. The Post said she was “teetering,” burdened by “indecision within her campaign, her limits as a candidate, and dwindling funds.” The Times obtained a scathing resignation letter in which Kelly Mehlenbacher, a senior aide, criticized campaign leadership for inconsiderate management, including laying off employees without notice. “This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly,” Mehlenbacher wrote. (She has since joined Michael Bloomberg’s campaign.) On Friday, Politico’s Playbook newsletter shared both pieces, calling them “two nail-in-coffin stories for Kamala Harris.”

Yesterday, Harris called it quits. “I’ve taken stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hardest decisions of my life,” she told supporters. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.” The inevitable postmortems blamed the internal dysfunction and rancor; Harris’s enduring slump in the polls, aided by other candidates, including Joe Biden, eating away at her early support; her vacillation on important policy issues, most notably healthcare; and her past criminal justice record, which made her candidacy anathema to many progressives. Most centrally, they cited Harris’s failure to pick a clear message and stick with it. “Kamala Harris was never as easy to put on a bumper sticker as some of the others,” Chelsea Janes, who wrote the Post’s Thanksgiving story on Harris, said on PBS. “She sort of lost clarity in exactly who she was and why she was running.”

ICYMI: A tweet about Kamala Harris that was reposted thousands of times turned out to be false

Some commentators identified another culprit: the media. On Sunday, before we knew Harris would drop out, MSNBC’s Joy Reid said the Harris-crisis stories illustrated a broader truth about the standards to which different candidates are held: “The narrative around the Democratic primary seems to be very bullish toward white, male candidates, and lukewarm on women and minorities.” Yesterday, post-dropout, the Reverend Al Sharpton echoed Reid’s point. “I’ve never seen a candidate taken apart the way she was in the last several days,” he said, also on MSNBC. “Yes, there were organizational problems. Yes, there were financial problems. But you have people on that debate stage who have no organization at all.” On Twitter, Times columnist Frank Bruni said it had always been “curious” to him that Harris got less publicity than was afforded Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg in the early days of their respective presidential campaigns. (O’Rourke dropped out last month; Buttigieg is currently considered a front-runner.) Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway, replied to Bruni via Twitter that women of color “can tell you why [Harris] didn’t get the star treatment that white male candidates got in the media.”

Julián Castro, Harris’s erstwhile rival for the Democratic nomination, also came to her defense. After effusively praising Harris to CBS, Castro paused, then added, “I will say that the way that the media treated Senator Harris in this campaign has been something else.” The articles in the Times and the Post, and another in Politico, Castro said, “held her to a different standard—a double standard—[which] has been grossly unfair and unfortunate.” He elaborated in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Nidhi Prakash. “Just because somebody is willing to talk doesn’t mean that reflects a reality or that necessarily gives it front-page coverage in your publication,” he said, referring to the insider sourcing of the stories. “Donald Trump was very willing to talk to journalists in 2015 and ’16 and because of that journalists gave him a lot of coverage. There has to be more responsibility in the profession than that.”

Campaign dynamics are fair game, especially when they pertain to allegations about the treatment of staff. It’s also true that a wide range of pundits treated Harris as a very serious proposition when she launched her campaign in January (she was CNN’s first town hall invitee, right ahead of Howard Schultz) and that she made avoidable missteps since then. But the complaints of a double standard carry weight. In recent months, it does feel as if Harris has had to work harder than white, often male rivals for attention—a dynamic that has intensified as focus has started to shift decisively to Iowa and New Hampshire, the very white early nominating states. As several observers, including Castro, noted yesterday, too much campaign discussion remains fixated on “electability,” a notion that has always been friendlier to white male candidates and was only amplified by the way Trump won in 2016, and the conventional wisdom about—and stakes involved in—beating him.

Some of yesterday’s valedictory Harris coverage reflected on a perceived high point for her campaign: the first Democratic debate, in June, when she grilled Biden on race. As I wrote at the time, their exchange was both a riveting viral “moment” of the type many in the press crave, but also illuminating of crucial matters of substance. With Harris gone, the top candidates in the Democratic primary—and those who could still join them in that tier—look more homogeneous than ever. The press must ensure that its campaign coverage doesn’t echo this homogeneity.

Below, more on Kamala Harris and the Democratic primary:


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Impeachment polls and the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy

Update: A previous version of this post included Diamond and Silk in the list of Fox News personalities who have appeared at events promoting Republican events or causes. Diamond and Silk host a show on Fox Nation, a streaming service, but are not formally employed by Fox News, and so are subject to a different set of standards. The post has been corrected.

a Monday, November 25th, 2019

The Oxford version of Trumpism

Last week, amid divisive elections in Britain, Ciaran Jenkins, a reporter with Channel 4 News, interviewed Michael Gove, a senior minister in Britain’s Conservative government, on a farm in Scotland. As cows mooed loudly in the background, Jenkins pressed Gove to justify misleading claims about government policy and Brexit. At one point, Gove suggested that Jenkins might have doctored an image to embarrass him. After Jenkins accused Gove of a lie, Gove got even more annoyed. “You use the L-word. That’s a very powerful word,” he said. “What you are attempting to do is make a polemical case… for a political viewpoint… because you have a particular outlook.”

Things deteriorated from there. Jenkins insisted that he was merely trying to hold Gove to account, and pressed Gove on another Conservative claim, about the number of hospitals the government planned to build—both a material and factual issue. 

But Gove wasn’t having it. “You’re using this interview as an opportunity—and I completely understand it—to mount an argument,” he said. “Now, there’s a perfectly respectable type of journalism in which you mount an argument, you use rhetoric, you interrupt, you have a series of propositions which you believe in. That’s perfectly fair journalism. What it’s not is objective.” 

Jenkins tried again: “I’m asking you: Are there going to be forty hospitals, or six? What could be more objective than that?” Gove accused him of mounting “a rigorous left-wing case.” Later, he mock-praised Jenkins for “a good speech” that “I’m sure would go down well on any election platform.”

Compared to Donald Trump’s puce-faced rants about “FAKE NEWS” and “RADICAL DEMOCRATS,” Gove’s attack sounds ludicrously quaint. But there are depressing similarities. Trump’s anti-press rhetoric doesn’t rest on the theoretical dissection of news from “polemic,” but it does involve painting fair scrutiny from reliable sources as a partisan exercise. That’s exactly what Gove was doing here.

Politicians snapping at journalists isn’t new, and Gove’s Conservatives have particular beef (farm pun intended) with Channel 4 right now—Dorothy Byrne, the broadcaster’s head of news, recently called Gove’s boss, Boris Johnson, a “known liar” and compared his media strategy to that of Vladimir Putin. (A senior Conservative told Politico that the party doesn’t have a conscious anti-media strategy.) Still, Gove’s polite fake-news tirade is notable because he’s a wonkish, establishment figure, not a rabble-rousing populist outsider. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Goveand some Conservative colleagues—are stealing the latter’s lines, even if they are reading them in a telephone voice more suitable to their alma mater, Oxford University.

Gove—like Johnson—used to be a journalist: he worked for the Times of London for nine years before entering Parliament, including as an editorial writer. Shamelessly, Gove returned to that experience in his exchange with Jenkins: “As someone who was a journalist in the past and wrote polemics and then became a politician… you’re well on the way to going down that route,” he said. In Britain, as in the US, people who should know better are taking a dark route indeed.

a Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

Nautilus, under new ownership, commits to paying back writers

At the end of October, an investor group of superfans announced that they had joined together to acquire Nautilus, the nonprofit literary science magazine. The group of eight investors includes former Harvard president and United States treasury secretary Larry Summers as well as Nicholas White, the chief executive of news site the Daily Dot. The latter will be the new chief executive of the now for-profit magazine NautilusNext

Shortly after the announcement, a group of former Nautilus contributors publicized that the magazine still owed writers about $186,000. In partnership with the National Writers Union, they campaigned to be made whole as part of the acquisition.

“NautilusNext’s commitment not to take any profit out until contributors are paid back was part of the actual deal to acquire the magazine. That commitment was made long before the National Writers Union issued a press release about the acquisition on November 7th. We did it because it was the right thing to do, and the right way to set a new course for the magazine’s future.”

This week White told CJR, in a phone conversation, that NautilusNext would “commit to not taking one dollar in profit until those contributors are paid back.” The commitment, he said, “was part of the actual deal to acquire the magazine. That commitment was made long before the National Writers Union issued a press release about the acquisition on November 7th. We did it because it was the right thing to do, and the right way to set a new course for the magazine’s future.” Their relationship with writers is important, he said; Nautilus has traditionally been a home for unusual, writer-driven pieces. Here’s hoping that can continue. 

This post has been updated for clarity.

a Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

Everyone is admitting what they get paid to work in journalism

When journalists want to talk among themselves about something difficult, the anonymous Google Doc seems to have become the mechanism. First there was the “Shitty Media Men” document, which was circulated in 2017, and eventually grew into a long list of alleged sexual harassers, working at some of the leading media outlets in the country. Today there is a document circulating in which journalists are being encouraged to share the details of their salaries (Note: CJR hasn’t verified any of the information independently).

You might think talking about salaries would be a lot less contentious than naming sexual abusers, but what people get paid has always been a touchy subject in the media business. That is in part because it dredges up all sorts of awkward and uncomfortable issues like lower pay for women and people of color (something a recent Washington Post salary survey confirmed is still a problem), and because it reinforces just how low salaries are across the industry, for almost everyone. 

ICYMI: Our campaign to ban 7 words/phrases abused by journalists

A web producer for Wirecutter, the consumer review site now owned by the New York Times, makes just $45,000, according to the list. An editor at the same site with three years of experience has a salary of only $62,000. For a job based in New York City, that seems barely livable. A deputy editor with the Times with 15 years experience reportedly makes $145,000, but those kinds of figures are the exception rather than the rule. A senior video producer at USA Today makes just $50,000.

Journalists doing anonymous journalism about journalism, in the shape of Google docs, is a new development in form. And examples like the SMM list definitely bring up ethical implications that should be considered. But in the long run, we would probably all be better off if the salary list sparked a healthy conversation about who is paying whom how much, and for what. 

a Monday, November 11th, 2019

Ban these words

Language is ever-shifting; fights over grammar, however delightful, betray the essential dynamism of the written word.

That said, journalists must be stopped. 

Maybe it’s our assimilation into the absurdities of the internet, the unearned ease with which the industry adopts and wields Black slang in copy, or just the mundane reality that we— journalists, humans— love to destroy good things. 

But there are some words and phrases that have been abused in journalism, and no longer mean anything at all. Here begins a campaign to keep them off the page.

  1. Woke: Cease and desist. Just don’t. I’m begging you. There is no longer a way to use this word that is not either vague or patronizing or both. You’re not using air quotes but your tone is.
  2. Content: ???????? What is the thing. Say the thing.
  3. Unprecedented: This is almost never true. Don’t be dramatic.
  4. Problematic: Substitute this word for one that accurately describes the behavior of whatever person or institution you’re referring to. 
  5. Disrupt: Mostly we use this word to describe people or companies whose behavior, on the whole, is destructive.
  6. “The issues:” This is often used in political reporting as a placeholder for “problems.” Consider the “issues” discussed during primary debates: gun control legislation and healthcare, for example. These are problems–the routine violent death of Americans via bullet, lack of access to affordable healthcare. Calling them issues, which softens their urgency and betrays the actual point of politics—to solve problems—is a disservice. Our commitment to vagueness is tiring.
  7. Nondescript: Giving up on a description while making that description. Either describe the thing, or don’t.

ICYMI: The 26-year-old who has been laid off three times

a Monday, November 11th, 2019

Please stop

The far-right political campaigner Jacob Wohl is a liar. He has lied about pipe bombs. About Robert Mueller, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, all of whom he falsely accused of sexual misconduct. (The details are not worth going in to, but are here for anyone curious.) 

At a recent press conference in May, about his allegations against Buttigieg, Wohl and his partner in misinformation Jack Burkman took questions. The most perspicacious came from The Daily Beast’s reporter, Will Sommer. “How can anyone take you seriously at this point, and second of all, you’re clearly lying, right?” Sommer asked. “So, what’s the deal?”

The deal has become clearer in the intervening weeks: Wohl likes attention, and we have continued to give it to him. The shock of the Mueller accusation was enough to be newsworthy, especially since the stakes appeared high. And the allegations against Buttigieg and Warren were, at least, entertainingly bungled. But Wohl and Burkman now appear aware that they have accidentally become entertainers, and the bungling appears to have become an exercise in personal branding. 

If Wohl falls afoul of the law, it probably won’t be for maliciously accusing public figures of sex crimes but for setting up an unlicensed real estate business in Arizona that allegedly bilked one man, now dead, out of $75,000, per Sommer’s reporting.

The reporters who helped Wohl and Burkman apply clown makeup deserve the thanks of a grateful nation, but, at the risk of being the guy who hits reply all to ask everybody to stop replying to the email, it is probably time to move on to harder targets.

The temptation to continue to cover the pair’s debasement on their own absurd terms will be strong, but we ought to resist it. The media has often been accused of symbiosis with the flamboyant, intentionally clickable leaders of the far right; it’s time to break that cycle. 

Last week, the pair summoned reporters to the Burkman family driveway yet again to accuse Ted Cruz of being a swinger; with them was far-right misogynist Milo Yiannopoulos, who has been complaining bitterly that he has been silenced, when what he means is that nobody wants to pay him any longer — with money or attention — for torrents of desperate trolling abuse targeted at women, Muslims and others. 

Let’s do the same for Wohl and Burkman.