News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Newspapers Emerging from the Pandemic

In this month’s Editor & Publisher magazine, check out the cover story. I spoke with news organizations about the past pandemic-challenged year and how they’ve managed through the tumult.

Read on at EditorandPublisher.com:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/newspapers-emerging-from-the-pandemic,189882

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

HD Media Takes on the Tech Giants

With a federal antitrust suit against Google and Facebook, a single newspaper publisher seeks to level the playing field

By Gretchen A. Peck

Tech giants Google and Facebook aren’t strangers to antitrust litigation and Congressional scrutiny, but in a first-of-its-kind case, the two companies have been named as defendants in a federal antitrust lawsuit filed by a newspaper publisher.

The plaintiff, HD Media Co., LLC, is the West Virginia-based publisher of seven titles, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch, a historically significant newspaper that dates back to 1871.

On Jan. 29, the publisher filed its lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia. To small community and regional newspaper publishers across the nation, the action may seem like David squaring off against a two-headed Goliath.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

What’s “Section 230,” and why should you care?

Yesterday, the Giants of Social Media stomped their feet down on the President of the United States, who’d abused their platforms all along, leveraging them to spread disinformation, launch attacks, paint targets, fire people, lament TV ratings, race bait, and – his most egregious offenses – to discredit the 2020 election, grift people of their hard-earned cash with promises of an overturn, inciting the most gullible among them to disrupt governance, trash and pillage the U.S. Capitol, plant bombs in the nation’s capital, murder a Capitol Police officer, and attempt to install Donald J. Trump as a second-term President via violent insurrection against their own country.

Whew.

Indeed, social media had tolerated much from the digitally prolific President, but as conversations of an armed terrorist attack on the nation’s capital began to simmer, they’d had enough. 

Immediately came the decries of a “First Amendment infringement” (it’s not), and Trump’s most loyal lawmaker friends calling for a repeal of “Section 230” – a pet peeve for the outgoing Commander in Chief.

What is Section 230?

“Section 230” – more formally known as Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 at 47 U.S.C. § 230, and colloquially as “the 26 words that created the Internet” – was born out of two 1990s lawsuits against ISPs and challenged in the Courts several times since. Each time, it was upheld. 

It is fair to say that Section 230 is perhaps the single most important legislation applicable to social media. It is what enabled platforms like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and others to grow, flourish, and become a huge, integral part of the American economy and culture.

President Trump’s interest in Section 230 appears to coincide with Twitter’s first fact-checking of the President’s potentially harmful tweets, back in the spring of 2020. At the time, he was undermining his own taskforce with COVID-19 disinformation, and already sowing the seeds of election chaos. 

Twitter justified the tags it placed on the President’s tweets by suggesting that virus disinformation could kill people – and it has – and that his election discrediting jeopardized democracy itself. The rest of the President’s political gamesmanship was all fair game, Twitter and Facebook concluded. 

From then on, the President became hyper-focused on a Section 230 repeal. He would like to be able to sue the tech companies for denying him a platform and megaphone. He wants to criminalize fact-checking. He has been so intent on this goal, that he was willing to tank two major pieces of legislation – the NDAA and a second sweeping COVID relief Bill – if he couldn’t get his way on Section 230. 

For Democrats, this repeal is a non-negotiable dealbreaker, perhaps because they have a better grasp of what’s at stake. 

In Congress, some of President Trump’s most lock-step Republicans now champion the repeal in his stead. 

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) sponsored a 2020 bill, known as H.R. 8896 – the AOC Act, which conveniently shares the acronym with a certain Congresswoman perpetually under the skins of her Republican colleagues and its actual title, “the Abandoning Online Censorship Act.” Gohmert was able to get seven co-sponsors to sign on, all Republicans.

It was “dead in the [swamp] water.”

In 2021, and in the wake of the de-platforming of an American President who would not follow the rules, Republicans will make this case: When the platforms began to fact-check, censor, and now ban content from the President and others, they have ceased to be a platform and are instead a publisher, with an editorial due diligence and subjective control over what users see or don’t see. 

The tech platforms will argue: As private companies, with clear terms of service (that users agree to when they open their accounts and create their avatars), they should be able to enforce those rules and codes of conduct, which clearly state that users are prohibited from sharing content that will harm or threaten people (other users or otherwise). 

It’s worth mentioning that the federal government already has some control over platforms and their users. For example, it is criminal act to distribute certain types of content across the Internet or any platform. Section 230 does not give social media platforms blanket immunity from all forms of civil or criminal prosecutions. 

If Section 230 goes away, what happens?

Without Section 230, the platforms, like publishers, would be subjected to defamation and libel laws. The distinction, however, is that publishers own their content. Publishers create, edit, verify and challenge, run it by lawyers, decide what and what not to publish, and then take whatever fallout there is from those choices; they wholly own the content they share. 

Conversely, platforms are just that – a technological foundation for users to share the content they and others produce. Without Section 230 shields, platforms could then be held liable for content they do not create and merely host. 

President Trump and his Congressional allies vow this repeal will force the tech companies to take an apolitical hands-off approach to users; that it will force them to enable more free expression; and force the platforms to be tolerant of a broader spectrum of ideas and alt-facts. 

They feel social media has been unfair to conservative voices and ideas. A simple glance at what trends on Facebook defies this assertion. On any given day, the top 10 trending posts on Facebook are often from Right-leaning media and personalities, or topics deemed of import to conservative-minded users.

I know you’re surprised that politicians would sell you poppycock, right?

Instead, a repeal would likely have a chilling, constricting effect on users most of all. 

Now, liable for content they do not create, platforms will be forced to more protective and less likely to tolerate content that could be controversial, debatable or have merit in a Court of law. 

Users would have less opportunity for free expression, not more

It’s a bottomless pit of liability for the social media platforms, which could be named as a Party in every single lawsuit in which a social media comment somehow plays a role – big-dollar cases to petty ones. 

The only real winners will be lawyers. 

Ultimately, it would hobble the tech companies, just as one notoriously vindictive President hopes. The tech market would be destabilized, fractured. Users would find themselves with fewer options and tighter restrictions on what they can post and share. Online communities will be more insular and more echo-chamber like. 

Businesses – especially small businesses that rely heavily on the mostly free marketing perks of platforms like Twitter and Facebook – would be hobbled, too. It doesn’t seem the Republicans like Lindsay Graham and Louie Gohmert have really thought this through. 

None of this is to say that social media execs don’t have plenty of atoning to do. There is no shortage of Silicon Valley sin, but repealing Section 230 will not address those in a surgical, effective way. 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

A Tale of Two Patriots

I, like so many other Americans, am still trying to process the assault on our Nation’s Capitol. I am grateful to the many journalists and photojournalists who were the People’s eyes and ears, our witnesses and documentarians to this tragic day in American history. 

Thanks to their continued reporting, we’re all able to assess the physical aftermath. The emotional toll, the structural damage to our democracy may take some time to discern and measure.

It was during my digital assessment of the damage that I came upon a tweet from William Turton, a Bloomberg reporter who captured some video as he strolled through a fairly opulent and pricey DC hotel, documenting scores of guests fresh off their storm-the-Capitol tour of Washington, DC. 

In the video, they sit casually in groups, chatting and enjoying refreshments, as if they haven’t a care in the world.  

Turton, who was also a hotel guest, reported that some of these people followed him, harassed him, and demanded that he erase this footage. The hotel staff had to intervene to protect him.   

I knew that hotel, because it was just a couple of years ago when I stayed there with four of my favorite fellas. My husband and I, my brother-in-law, my father-in-law and uncle-in-law all traveled by Amtrak to DC, to attend the beautifully solemn “Evening Parade.” 

Every American should make the trip to Washington, DC and attend this seasonal, weekly Friday night event, held on the grounds of the oldest Marine Corps barracks in the United States. 

In my case, I had the honor of accompanying two unimpeachable patriots to this particular Friday-night parade: My father-in-law, a WWII Marine Corps vet who served in the South Pacific, and my uncle-in-law, who spent WWII at sea with the U.S. Navy – the two surviving brothers out of the five Peck “boys,” who all enlisted and served their Nation with honor. 

Aboard Amtrak, they passed the time playing cards and talking about the last time they’d been to Washington, DC – a seniors’ bus trip that included a stop at the WWII Memorial. Neither had been on a train in years, and they relished the experience – even more so when we arrived at Washington, DC’s famous Union Station and got “first-class golf-cart transportation” from the train to the taxi line outside. 

We checked in to our hotel and everyone freshened up before we had to dash off to the Marine Corps event. Arriving at the historic barracks, we saw a long line of people waiting to get in. The USMC estimates that each Evening Parade brings out thousands of spectators. My husband and I looked at each other, silently conveying our worry that his father and uncle – both in their 90s by then – would have to navigate the line and be on their feet for an untold amount of time.

But no sooner had we exited the cab and taken our spot at the back of the line when a fine-looking Marine in full dress blues approached us. My father-in-law was wearing a crisp new USMC Veteran cap we’d bought him at an army-navy store. It only took that sighting of that hat and perhaps the mileage on our men to grab his attention. “Would you do me the honor of being my guest at the Officers’ Club,” he said to my father-in-law, who accepted the invitation with a curious spirit and a little spring in his step. 

The handsome Marine led us across the barracks lawns and into a nondescript building, up an impossibly steep set of stairs to the second-story lounge. Soldiers of various officer ranks and attire mingled and imbibed. This, too, seemed like a Friday-night ritual. 

We were led to a comfy sectional, and other Marines swooped in to ask what we were drinking. My father-in-law and uncle order glasses of red wine. Neither was ever much of a drinker. Marines came over and introduced themselves and marveled at our Marine’s and Sailor’s ages and at what they must’ve seen and endured during their time at War. 

It became obvious to us that one of the Marines in the room was running the show, getting invited guests stoked for the parade to come, and boosting the morale for the in-service men and women present. He came over and introduced himself to our family and asked “the boys” about where and when they served. They exchanged some military quips and inside soldier jokes, and our host turned to the room and called his soldiers to attention, formally introducing their military brothers in the house. 

The room erupted in applause and ooh-rahs. 

The parade was about to start, so we were told to head on down to the parade grounds and get a good seat. Before we left, one of the Marines came up and pulled me aside and pleaded with me to bring “the boys” back to the Club after the parade. He had something special planned for them, he said, and swore me to secrecy. 

It was a perfect late-summer night. It was still hot, but the bugs were gone. The sky was clear, moving from a silky dusk-blue to midnight black, a heavenly made scrim for the performance. 

For nearly two hours, we were captivated by the drill demonstrations, historic anecdotes, marching, music, drum lines and trumpets. At the conclusion, we all headed back to the Club, none of us really knowing what to expect. 

The Marines who’d spoken with my father-in-law and uncle had listened so astutely to the tales they told of their family, their upbringing, their wartime. They recounted these stories to the quieted crowd of lively Marines and officers from other branches of the service, who applauded and cheered and brought tears to my eyes. 

It was recognition hard-fought and long overdue. The sense of camaraderie, brotherhood, and pride was palpable. 

While we’d been enjoying the parade, the Officers had printed up certificates and bound them in red silk, acknowledging each of the Peck brothers for their service to the nation. They called my father-in-law up to the front of the room, and he shuffled his way there to accept it. He was asked if he’d like to say a few words. He didn’t hesitate. He’d rehearsed this story on us a thousand times already. 

“I told my father that I was thinking about enlisting in the Marine Corps,” he began. “My father said, ‘Why the Marine Corps?’” My father-in-law shrugged for effect.

The crowd chuckled, and he continued. “So, my father said to me, ‘Go down the street and see our neighbor. He was a Marine. Ask him what it’s like before you enlist.’ So I did, and he gave me this advice: ‘Keep your eyes open, your mouth closed, and never volunteer for anything.’” 

I never entirely appreciated that last part about volunteering, but all those Marines in the room got the drift, and they burst out into laughter and cheers. I was so happy for my father-in-law. He always loved an audience for his stories. 

Next up, our uncle made his way to the front to accept his award. He was the only Navy man in the room. He was given his certificate, saluted, and invited to say a few words to the crowd. You could see his chest rise and his back straighten as he thought of what to say. 

In his best loud and authoritative voice, he gave them a good old-fashioned Navy-vs-Marine ribbing: “The Marines wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the Navy,” he declared. 

And they adored him for it. The room erupted in cheers and hollers and applause. 

We were so proud of “our boys,” and so very glad we’d made the trip – no easy feat for 90-year-old bodies. 

It was months after the trip, and the two brothers were still talking about it. They marveled at the parade, their time in the Officers Club. They displayed their certificates in a curio cabinet, next to the medals and dog tags of their other brothers.

They spoke of the pleasures of train travel and often repeated how magnificent the hotel and their hotel room had been.  

Today, I watched the video footage of that hotel’s guests, who’d come to DC to support a President who doesn’t even respect them enough to tell them the truth, who took part, either passively or actively, in storming the Capitol, trespassing, vandalism, a violent insurrection. They’re just sitting there, sprawled around the lobby, chatting, having refreshments, rewarding themselves, having been convinced that their actions are somehow patriotic. 

And I think of those five Peck brothers, their family’s sacrifice. I think of the moments each of them enlisted, that dilemma they each faced, that choice they made. I think of the men they became and the values they held so dear. I think of how proud my father-in-law was to be an American and of his time as a United States Marine, and later, in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he re-enlisted to learn to fly planes. I think of the men they became and how they lived their lives after the service – with humility, perspective, gratitude, frugality, and unwavering honor.

I think of the two Peck brothers walking into that fancy hotel lobby for the first time, looking up and marveling at its architecture, in awe of the experience, grateful to be alive to see it.

And I look at those hotel guests, and I want to tell them: Real, true patriots walked these halls. 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Billie’s Reality

Reality Winner’s mother and stalwart advocate, Billie Winner-Davis, talks about her daughter’s ongoing imprisonment, the Espionage Act, a Presidential tweet, and the disturbing lack of Press attention

By Gretchen A. Peck

Billie Winner-Davis’ Twitter followers know her to be a near-tireless digital advocate for her daughter, Reality. With only hashtags – #FreeRealityWinner, #CompassionateRelease4Reality, #ProtectWhistleblowers – in her quiver, she’s on a quest to see that her daughter is released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Medical Center in Carswell, Texas – and that Reality’s incarceration hasn’t been in vain.

With a memorable name like Reality Winner, you’d think it would be “household,” part of the pop vernacular. Yet, many Americans still don’t know her name, nor the action she took – she contends, on their behalf.

Reality Winner, USAF veteran

At 18, Winner enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF), and her natural aptitude for languages carved her path the military. She served as a cryptologic linguist, a marketable skill beyond her six years of service. 

Winner was in her mid-twenties and fresh out of the service when National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Pluribus International hired her to be a translator. It was during the course of her work there that she obtained a classified document that outlined Russia’s sustained campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. election that pitted Hillary Clinton against Donald J. Trump for the Presidency. 

The classified report detailed Russian hackers’ objective to compromise local election and voter registration systems across the country. Winner copied the report, hiding it in her pantyhose to get it off site, she later told investigators. She sent the document to Glenn Greenwald’s former outlet, The Intercept. 

Winner was arrested in June 2017, two days before The Intercept published its story.

Now, three years and another Presidential election later, the information Winner disclosed seems somehow quaint. Volumes have been written on Russia’s meddling, including the thick tome Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team produced, but few read. 

The United States of America charged Winner under the Espionage Act, law intended to prosecute the nation’s most insidious traitors. Prosecuting counsel portrayed Winner as an existential threat to the nation, suggesting she’d caused “grave damage” and compromised national security. 

For any objective observer, it’s hard to quantify those damages; certainly, the Federal Government was embarrassed by the disclosure – caught on its heels, slow to mount a defense against Russian aggression, and intent on keeping that failure hidden from the American people. 

In June 2018 – after a year in prison – Winner pleaded guilty to a single felony count of unauthorized transmission of classified information. She was sentenced to five years and three months and has been incarcerated since.

Billie Winner-Davis, with her daughter, Reality Winner

Reality’s mother hasn’t seen her daughter, in person, since February 2020. On March 13th, the Federal facility halted all in-person visitation to mitigate the COVID-19 virus. 

“She calls when she can. It’s a little hard with my work schedule, but she tries before I go to work. She also has to fight for the phone, because she’s in a large unit, and there are only so many phones. That means standing in line and waiting,” Winner-Davis said. Some weekends, she has the good fortune to connect with Reality through video chat. “It’s good to lay eyes on her, to know she’s okay.”

Despite the prison’s attempts to keep the virus at bay, Winner tested positive in July. She reported to her mother that she had telltale symptoms – body aches, severe headache and muscle cramps. Several months later, her mother was comforted to know that she was doing well and seemingly “over it.” 

Winner is scheduled for release on November 24, 2021. In May 2021, she’ll be eligible for a supervised early-release program. Naturally, Winner’s legal team sought clemency for their client, a pardon that can only come from one person in all of the land – the President of the United States. 

“It could be this President. It could be the next President,” Winner-Davis said. “She really doesn’t have very high hopes of getting out. She feels like she’s going to be there until her release date.”

President Trump appeared to take a passing interest in Winner’s conviction when he tweeted about her on August 24, 2018: 

“I always look back at the tweet, and I use it out there on Twitter, to remind [President Trump] that it’s still very unfair. It was really cool to see that tweet, and it was good, because during her pre-trial phase, her attorneys told us not to use the word ‘unfair,’ because it might upset the Courts; and so, for Trump to use that word was amazing for us. This process has been unfair from the beginning. 

“But when you look at the tweet, you see that his intent was to get back at Jeff Sessions, who he was angry with at the time. And he was trying to say something disparaging about Hillary Clinton. He was using Reality to get at them,” she said.

As Reality’s chief champion, her mother spends untold afterwork hours writing letters, emails, and making calls to the White House and members of Congress. At best, she receives boilerplate letters in response. Worse yet, she says, is the silence. 

“That’s one of the things that has been difficult for me — feeling like Reality doesn’t have support, even from my officials here in Texas,” she said. “I write to them, and I get form letters back saying that they don’t have the authority to intervene. I’m not asking them to intervene. I’m asking them to support her. When we were going to Washington, DC for the second-year anniversary of her arrest, I wrote to a number of Senators, asking if I could have a meeting with them while I was there – and to Nancy Pelosi, as well — but I never heard from anyone.” 

She is heartened, however, by the number of people who have expressed support and empathy for her daughter, including some of those famous whistleblowers – Thomas A. Drake, Lisa Ling, Edward Snowden, and others.

Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen reached out with interest in advocating for Winner’s compassionate early release – a privilege he was afforded while serving time for his own 2018 conviction. 

Hollywood came calling, too. Winner’s mother said that a documentary is planned for early 2021. There’s also a greenlit feature film in the works.

Reality Winner appealed for compassionate release on November 16, 2020 hearing. Chief U.S. District Judge Randal Hall said that Winner had not provided the prison warden 30 days to consider a compassionate release appeal, and that her attorneys failed to present a compelling case. 

Beyond a handful of legal publishers, few news organizations covered the hearing. 

“The media just isn’t there,” Winner-Davis said. 

When Reality and her mother have the opportunity to speak, they talk about lots of things – about her daughter’s health, her perspective on prison and the law, and what the future might hold. Winner is working on a degree in sociology. She’s become a certified instructor in yoga and spin-cycling. 

Her mother expects that she’ll leverage this experience and become an advocate for criminal justice and social justice reform. She’s expressed interest in working with at-risk youths. 

What the pair haven’t spoken about is the former government contractor’s decision to disclose the information – the risk-benefit analysis she considered before she sent the classified report to The Intercept.

 “She and I have never been able to have a real conversation about this. All of our conversations are monitored,” Winner-Davis said. “There have been times when she’s mentioned that she hopes that what she did paid off in some way, you know – that it made a difference, that it made some sort of a difference.”

Winner-Davis expressed frustration that the very information Reality disclosed is still being used as political fodder, and that its veracity is being undermined by members of the United States Congress. 

“We seem to have come full circle,” she said, exasperated. “Now, they’re trying to disprove it again, trying to say that there was something malicious about the investigation itself. And I sit here, and I want to scream, ‘But the Russians did it!’ It warranted an investigation, but now they’re trying to say that the investigation itself was wrong.” 

In the meantime, her daughter serves time. 

“The only thing I’ve been fighting for this whole time is to keep her name out there, and for people to learn who she is. She really is a remarkable young woman. Her service in the Air Force, her volunteerism? You’re not going to find someone that young who has given so much. I just want people to see her for who she is,” Winner-Davis said.

“I also want people to recognize that she didn’t do any harm to her country, and to press our nation into reforming the Espionage Act. It should only be used for people who actually damage us, who trade secrets, sell secrets, and work against our country. It should not be used on people like Reality, like Edward Snowden, like Chelsea Manning. There has got to be a line where we say, ‘No, this doesn’t fit.’ Reality did not conspire against the United States of America.”

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Consider the source

The Hunter Biden laptop story was so full of holes it’s hard to imagine why the NY Post — a tabloid — made an editorial decision to pick it up. This NY Times column explores why other outlets didn’t buy into it, including another Murdoch-owned paper, the non-tabloid WSJ.

It’s interesting to look at this from a 40,000-foot level and to study how news perpetuates in an economically disparate way. If you get your news largely from free sources or social media — or if you only watch Fox News and listen to freely accessible radio pundits — you likely don’t know the problems with the story and the diligence media outlets must use to determine its veracity. But if you’re a bit more well off — enough to afford a relatively expensive subscription to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, for example — you get the bigger picture, the more complete story, the truer version of events, and access to information that has been put through a meat grinder of editorial challenges and adjudication.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Imprecise rhetoric pits Americans against Americans

One thing that could help heal our nation a little bit is if our Representatives — in Congress, in the White House, at State Houses, and even in Town Councils — would stop the generalizing rhetoric.

When they mean “Democrats/Republicans IN CONGRESS,” they should speak the full phrase, not just “Democrats [insert condemnation],” not just “Republicans [insert condemnation].”

The American people should not have to shoulder the burdens of their imprecision and what is often political gamesmanship.

The American people should not be perpetually “groomed” and programmed by their Representatives to have disdain for one another — and especially because the “adults” in American government can’t compromise and get things done because they’re too busy gaining and retaining power.

Book Publishing, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Printing and Imaging, Uncategorized

Everything I Know About Capitalism, I Learned In the 6th Grade

This headline is not true, and yet, it was in this pre-Middle School era of my life when I first began to fully “understand the value of a dollar.”

I find that’s a popular phrase passed down through generations, an invaluable life lesson or a rite of passage. For two sixth-grade classes in the 1970s, their introduction to commerce and capitalism began that week.

That was the year that the number of students had outgrown the school, and some lucky contractor got the local school system bid for providing pop-up classrooms made out of stitched-together double-wide trailers. Two sixth-grade classes shared the one we’d been sentenced to, with a sliding partition between the two groups, each with its own teacher.

The partition was an insufficient barrier that mostly rendered us distracted by what was happening with the kids on the other side. When they laughed, our heads swiveled. When we acted up, they’d go silent and giggle as they listened to our punishment being levied. One teacher would have to raise her voice to keep the attention of her class whenever the sounds of the other teacher seemed more interesting.

And vice versa, and so it went.

Imagine the delight in our little hearts when one day the partition was folded in on itself, the two classrooms of kids facing off at last. The once competitive teachers joined forces and announced that we were going to learn about “the value of money.” They went on to explain that for a period of one week, there would be no traditional classroom lessons and that our trailer would be transformed into a microcosmic town.

Each of us had a role to play in the town. They asked for a show of hands when assigning roles like bankers, retailers, landlords, food purveyors, even insurance carriers.

I was the only one who wanted to run the town’s newspaper.

The town also needed governance and law, and so a show of hands indicated which of my classmates aspired to political life – managing their day-to-day duties while also running for a handful of offices, including mayor and sheriff.

We spent a day or two planning and building the town. Creative cardboard cutouts became our storefronts. Logos were designed, and signs went up over our storefronts. My classmates got right to work. The banker “handprinted” money and distributed a precisely equal amount of cash to each of the town’s residents, so everyone had a level playing field – a comparatively endearing socialist start to what would end in survival-of-the-fittest capitalistic carnage.

The most popular business, by far, was the town baker, who sold decadent treats to a classroom of kids given the freedom to make their own nutritional and expenditure decisions.

We didn’t speak of food allergies back then.

I got right to work wearing all the hats at the newspaper – a lot like things are today.

I reported and designed the layout. I “printed” the paper on the front office’s mimeograph. Printing is a big cost for actual newspapers, but I’d managed to get the paper and “press” for free. This would be seen as an ethical breach for actual newspapers.

I had to hock the paper, selling single copies to passersby. I sold advertising and wrote ad copy. I had to distribute the paper when it was hot off the press.

And though everyone wanted to read the paper – mostly to see if they were in it – few wanted to buy the paper. It was hard to compete with Mom-baked brownies.

I spent the week walking around the perimeter of the trailer, interviewing my classmates about the health of their businesses or who they liked in the pending election. I wrote trends pieces about how the town’s residents thought the rent was too damned high and how they wanted to be able to spend more of their money on luxury items, like those chocolately brownies. I vaguely remember writing an expose on the insurance carrier in town, who I saw as a huckster selling vapor.

“People give you money, but what do they really get in return,” I grilled him like I was Woodward or Bernstein.

One by one, the small businesses fell, exiling their owners from town, to a corner of the trailer-classroom to watch an episode of “Free to be You and Me” or to throw a sixth-grade temper tantrum, perhaps.

Naturally, the bank endured; it thrived off of the interest. The insurance carrier – who had minimal overhead costs and a contained, safe environment that put odds in his favor – stayed afloat. The baker had fistfuls of colorful cash by week’s end. And the newspaper endured, though I, too, was pretty busted. By the time I’d covered my own costs – rent, insurance, crayons – I didn’t have enough currency for much else.

I’d spent days coveting my classmates’ disposable income and how they frivolously, happily spent it on baked goods and insurance policies.

Somehow, I’d managed to get the news out, but it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t lucrative.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The AXIOS Interview: Observations on the President and the Press

This AXIOS on HBO interview with the President is generating a lot of social media buzz this week. If you’re like me and out of the HBO loop, AXIOS kindly published it online, free of charge. Here’s the link:

https://www.axios.com/full-axios-hbo-interview-donald-trump-cd5a67e1-6ba1-46c8-bb3d-8717ab9f3cc5.html

I watched it pre-dawn, with my first three cups of coffee and a notepad for visceral scribbling. I was most interested to see how Jonathan Swan formulated his questions and delivered them, and how he “managed” the President – prone to ramblings and deflections – in order to keep the interview productive and moving forward.

At least twice, the President broke the cadence of the interview to comment on Swan’s facial expressions, accusing him of smiling or smirking. This, too, is a rhetorical trick of the President’s – to redirect attention to the questioner, often disparaging the reporter in some way. Here, he seems to imply that Swan is unserious or being cheeky. What he did not do is call Swan “nasty,” or dumb or any of his other favorite insults he seems to reserve for women journalists who ask tough questions.

Swan didn’t hesitate to wade into some turbulent waters: the Federal response to COVID-19; Ghislaine Maxwell; the President’s plans to leverage the Courts to contest the election; Federal forces descending on an American city and usurping due process by essentially kidnapping protesters and holding them without charges; Black Lives Matter and civil unrest; and about his lack of regard for the late John Lewis.

Swan even asked about the intelligence reports that suggest Russia has taken out bounties on Allied troops’ heads. The President demonstrated his incuriosity about the intel. “If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” he proclaimed.

“This one didn’t reach my desk,” he insisted. And yet it’s on his desk; it’s in his briefing, and the President didn’t even bother to bring it up for discussion during his call with Putin last week (per the White House).

Swan then probed the President about widely circulated and publicized intelligence that ties Russia to supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a shocking “whataboutism” response, the President replied, “We supplied weapons to the Taliban when they were fighting Russia. … We did that, too.”

It is stunning to see a President of the United States equivocating American troops – presumably sent to the Afghanistan mountains to combat terrorism and nation build – with Russia’s aggressive, invading forces the Taliban caused to retreat long ago.

Pressed on troop levels in Afghanistan, the President acknowledged that the numbers have gone up and gone down during his Presidency, but he insists that his mission is to nearly halve the level with which the Administration began. Swan, wanting a number and a timetable on the promise, gets the President to say the U.S. will have between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan on election day 2020.

Swan is particularly effective at getting the President to eventually answer a question. Someone on Twitter suggested that it’s because of the Aussie accent, but it’s really because he fires follow-up questions and real-time fact checks at the President. The White House Press Corps, often kept to one or two questions, don’t have that luxury. It’s too easy for the President or McEnany to just point to someone else and move on.

Throughout the interview, the President makes relentless attempts to stonewall Swan. He interrupts. He talks in circles. He deflects and heads off in tangents – often leading to topics within his comfort zone: Crowd sizes. TV ratings. And why he doesn’t get enough “credit” – from whom, he doesn’t say.

In a line of questioning may be more uncomfortable for the audience than it is for the President, Swan asked the question about his “I wish her well” remarks about Ghislaine Maxwell, the accused pimp and pedo-buddy of the late Jeffrey Epstein – both, long-time friends of the President. In response, the President suggested that Epstein may have been murdered in prison, citing no evidence to support his assertion.

What the President doesn’t want to talk about is the pandemic and the more than 159,000 dead Americans. When Swan does manage to steer the President to the topic, the President flippantly dismisses statistics, including the measurably important death-per-capita data from the United States and other developed nations. The President suggests that data is flawed.

The duo’s conversation about testing is revealing, in an emperor-lacks-clothes kind of way. The President’s obstinance about testing continues. Swan points out that test results take too long – that a test result, sometimes 10 days after the swabbing, doesn’t help the patient and it doesn’t help quell the transmission of the virus.

Weeks before the Swan interview, the Trump Administration “defunded” federal testing sites they’d set up around the country. They folded the tents, pulled the personnel, and said to those communities, “You’re on your own now.”

One of so many unforced errors made by the President during the interview, he asserted, “You can test too much,” citing unnamed sources, “the manuals” and “the books.” To his credit, Swan followed up with a question about which manuals and books he was citing – knowing, of course, that the President cannot answer the question.

The part of the interview about COVID-19 and testing will now be added to the library of videos of the President’s half-year campaign to diminish the virus, to give Americans some false sense of security, to fuel conspiracy theories about it, to play wannabe doctor and pharmacist, to endanger lives.

The national lack of ambition on testing – despite the volume of tests already performed the President prefers to cite – may be our undoing. It should go without saying that the more rapid-result testing we do, the easier it becomes to isolate the virus, identify risks, to help on-the-front lines healthcare workers and facilities be proactive rather than reactive. The path to any sort of normalcy – schools reopening, businesses bouncing back, seeing each other, touching each other, encouraging the kids to play together again, going to a restaurant, going on a date, seeing live music, attending a funeral – is paved in testing.

And we’ve blown it.

About those nearly 160,000 American deaths? The President tells Swan, “It is what it is.”

Book Publishing, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Mary L. Trump’s Book: A Review

I bought Mary L. Trump, PhD’s book, “Too Much and Never Enough” not so much because I was interested in the family dynamics of the Trump clan, but because I have an (confessed) staunch disdain for men who try to silence women, and for Presidents who make people around them sign NDAs and file frivolous lawsuits to delay and degrade every publication or opinion about him. So, when I heard that the Trump family had tied the book up in court, I pre-ordered it.

It’s a thin hardback and an easy read.

In the early chapters, she struggles with voice.

At times, Trump reminds the reader that she is a clinician, highly educated in and informed about mental health and mental disease. Occasionally, she breaks from that serious tone, injecting editorial that is biting or snarky. I’m not sure those work in her favor.

A few chapters in, she hits her stride, and the book transitions into what it wanted to be from the beginning: A highly personal memoir, with decades worth of cringe-inducing memories of sadism and cruelty that runs like sap in the Trump family tree. Knowing that, you might tend to believe that this is purely “a hit piece,” written for retribution or revenge. She is wounded – and who wouldn’t be – but it becomes evident that malice isn’t her motivation. Rather, the narrative seems to indicate a patently private person’s strange sense of duty to the public, to correct the record on her family’s biography and image, including the curated and fabricated story of her Uncle’s business acumen.

The stories of family “black sheeps,” of dramatic dis-ownings, or siblings who turn against one another for their parents’ affection or post-mortem spoils, are nothing new. But the story of the Trump family is particularly tragic, because the repercussions of their greed, cruelty, and tumult have trickled down to all of us now. They’re global.

The saddest part of this story, it seems to me, is the acknowledgement that family can be so easily fractured, and that sometimes a person can spend a lifetime thinking they play a certain role in the family – thinking they are (if not well liked, then) well-loved by other members of the family. They can carry on blindly under those assumptions for years, decades even, until one day they come to realize that they didn’t have that firm standing at all, that the affection they felt for others was not reciprocated – the unsteadying realization that “I am on my own.”

I think that must’ve been how it felt in the moment Mary Trump recounts near the end of the book – a fateful phone conversation with her grandmother, the President’s mother. It’s a gut punch.

By the end, I was surprised at how viciously the President’s immediate family and inner circle denounced his niece’s recounting of her life to date. Donald, his siblings, their children? They were raised in a culture of abuse. You’ll close this book and think, “That explains so much.” It almost makes a person feel pity for the President, for the man he came to be. Almost.