Do you have a bucket list of things you feel you have to do before, um, it’s too late? I’ve never written mine down, but I’ve always known the absolute No. 1 top item: seeing soccer’s men’s World Cup in person. Although my heart stopped for the 3-4 seconds I thought Boston had stolen Philly’s slot as a 2026 host city, the dream is alive! I just need to spend four years raising the cash for tickets.
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Media can’t handle the truth as GOP spirals into violent authoritarianism
You must say this about the Texas Republican Party, the dominant political organization — kind of a Politburo, really — in America’s second-largest state, which along with Ron DeSantis’ Florida has become a bellwether for where the nation’s conservative movement is heading: They have an odd way of celebrating Juneteenth.
Indeed, in the very state where a Union general’s order on June 19, 1865, to free any remaining enslaved people inspired the national holiday, there was a strikingly antebellum feel to the first in-person convention of the Texas Republicans in four years. One of the pillars of the new party platform adopted Saturday was an overt call to repeal the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark bill forged in the blood of Selma to enshrine the political franchise for African Americans.
But the GOP confab attended by more than 5,000 party die-hards is hard to write about, because that loving embrace of white supremacy is just one of a half-dozen possible “this is nuts” headlines — labelling homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice,” or the platform’s 1861-ish embrace of secession from the Union, or its Handmaid’s Tale abortion plank, or the party rank-and-file turning on its own — booing stalwart Sen. John Cornyn for his willingness to negotiate on gun safety, and the posse that scuffled with Afghanistan war hero Rep. Dan Crenshaw.
But arguably the most appalling thing to emerge from the Texas gathering was the platform’s assertion that despite an utter lack of evidence, “substantial election fraud” occurred in big cities in key battleground states during the last presidential election that saw the ouster of Donald Trump. According to a passed resolution: “We reject the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.” First...”acting President”? Second, this is the concept that — if you’re the kind of person who believes in facts, as litigated in more than 60 court cases lost by Team Trump — you might call “the Big Lie.”
But not — since last week, anyway — if you work at CNN, after new boss Chris Licht urged an end to on-air use of the phrase, as part of an effort to make the news network more about down-the-middle breaking news and to clamp down on some of the more opinionated voices that emerged during the moral rot of the Trump years.
In fairness, Licht is aware there’s no truth in the GOP election fraud claim and reportedly told producers, at the meeting where he called for an end to use of “the Big Lie” phraseology, that they should call the assertions something like “Trump’s election lies.” He said his issue with “the Big Lie” was that he saw the term as “partisan” and associated with Democrats, something he wants to avoid. As reported by veteran media critic Dylan Byers at Puck, Licht is aiming to “discourage spectacle and alarmism” at the cable network.
It seems to me that if you’re not “alarmed” by an increasingly violent and angry political party that wants to take a huge chunk of America back to 1950s or (maybe more honestly the 1850s by rolling back human rights wins for Black and brown people, women, and the LGBTQ community), that believes in wild conspiracy theories about stolen elections or rampant elite pedophilia, and is making Nazi-style pariahs out of our transgender youth, then you aren’t doing the ultimate goal of journalism, which is defending democracy.
You could argue that CNN’s “Big Lie” flap isn’t a huge deal, but I think it’s important for two reasons. First, the current use of the phrase doesn’t come from Democrats, who tend to be far too craven to initiate that sort of thing, but from experts on the history of authoritarian movements who see a specific pattern in Trump’s transparently false election-fraud claim, and the way the GOP’s strongman has used this to galvanize his party. It’s not new, unfortunately, for U.S. presidents to lie, but what’s different is that Trump is employing a specific propaganda tactic developed by the Nazis in the 1930s. “The Big Lie” branding is critical for warning the public.
Second, Licht’s efforts to tone down CNN isn’t happening in a vacuum, but part of what seems like a concerted effort by a new generation of major newsroom leaders to de-amplify journalism in this not-really-post-Trump era with a blander, down-the-middle approach. What we’re seeing is folks like new New York Times top editor Joe Kahn saying a lot of the right things — “We’ve created a very robust experience around reporting on efforts to undermine democratic integrity and election integrity” — but then cloaking this within a bigger message about avoiding partisanship and “reporting in a well-rounded way.”
I believe this prevailing sentiment at the top about calmer, down-the-middle reporting is sending a chilling message that will intimidate some journalists from doing the one thing that America truly needs in this fraught moment: shouting from the rooftops that our 246-year experiment in democracy is in serious danger of imminent collapse.
Recently, Marc Jacob, a former top Chicago Tribune editor who’s become a leading critic of newsroom practices, told NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen that the “both sides” approach of equally quoting Republicans and Democrats has served the nation poorly. “That passive approach, which undercut the power of journalism and fact-checking, was increasingly being exploited by propagandists,” he said.
Indeed, and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. The Texas GOP isn’t much of an outlier. Here in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, a big-time believer in the Big Lie — photographed on the Capitol lawn on Jan. 6, 2021 — is within the “margin of error” of becoming our next governor, while in Missouri on Monday the leading Republican U.S. Senate candidate released a shotgun-toting ad in which he urges the slaughter of moderate members of his own party. This is a six-alarm fire, and democracy will perish if journalists are whispering softly into the microphone.
Yo, do this
If you’re a history buff, you probably know a bit about the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism, an anti-Communist witch hunt that swept through America and peaked in the early 1950s. But you may not be familiar (I wasn’t) with the day in 1953 they came for more than 30 Philadelphia public school teachers, mostly fledgling union activists, in an incident that forever changed education in this city. With some stunning, nearly 70-year-old audio tapes dug up by reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent, the WHYY podcast series Schooled is out with a compelling unearthing of this long-lost saga. Give it a listen.
Ironically, given the first couple of items in this newsletter, there’s a major new podcast out called The Big Lie, but it has nothing to do with Trump’s election falsehoods. Rather, this big-budget production from Audible, starring Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and other name actors (including his former Mad Men accomplice John Slattery) is another true story from the depths of the “Red Scare,” about the FBI’s effort to shut down a pro-labor and feminist motion picture called Salt of the Earth.
Ask me anything
Question: When do you foresee Trump actually having consequences and repercussions for his actions and rhetoric related to Jan. 6? When will the proverbial shoe drop? — Via Andrew Kefer (@akefer) on Twitter
Answer: Andrew, the $64,000 Question isn’t so much a matter of “when,” but more like “if.” It’s clear that the bar for indicting a former president has been set very, very high. I think two current events will determine whether Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department — seemingly handed an open-and-shut case of fraud and conspiracy by the House Jan. 6 Committee — feels confident enough to take this unprecedented step. The first is whether the House panel’s ongoing hearings continue to boost public support, now at 58%, for criminally charging Donald Trump. The second is what happens with a seemingly aggressive state-level probe of Trump’s election tampering in Fulton County, Ga., could be a test case for whether Team Garland thinks it’s feasible to bring federal charges. But this could all take some time.
Backstory on Shireen Abu Akleh, and press freedom in the Biden era
For the second time in less than four years, it appears that a U.S. ally with a dodgy history on human rights has murdered a working journalist with close American ties. I’ve written extensively since 2018 about the reportedly brutal, planned homicide by agents of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, of his critic Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident. Then on May 11 of this year, Shireen Abu Akleh, a prominent Palestinian-American reporter for Al Jazeera — and a U.S. citizen — was struck and killed by a bullet as she tried to report on fighting in the West Bank city of Jenin.
Her colleagues and eyewitnesses instantly said the shot came from the Israeli Defense Force, or IDF — a charge that met with the usual denials and obfuscation from Israel. But on Monday, a month-long investigation by the New York Times stated with confidence that the fatal bullet came from the approximate position of an Israeli military vehicle — most likely fired by a soldier from an elite unit as one of 16 bullets shot in the direction of five clearly marked journalists. The group Reporters Without Borders says that some 30 journalists, mostly Palestinian, have been shot and killed by Israeli forces since 2000.
How will President Biden’s government respond to the murder of a U.S. citizen? In the Khashoggi case, harsh words and the shunning of MBS as a pariah by Biden lasted more than a year, until it was clear that the Saudis could exact revenge for the snub by keeping world oil prices at record highs. Now, Biden is scrambling to meet MBS this summer, as any moral defense of press freedom takes a backseat to political desperation. Given that, the presumed U.S. response to the cold-blooded killing of its own citizen by Israel — a nation joined at the hip to leading pols in both parties — is going to be even more inadequate. Newspaper editorial boards and other leading voices for journalism around the world must stand together and condemn Israel and Saudi Arabia for their rank immorality, because the cowards at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue never will.
Recommended Inquirer reading
Only one column from me last week as I joined The Inquirer newsroom in observing the Juneteenth holiday. It also focused on the extreme radicalization taking place within the Republican Party, but particularly the stepped-up war on the LGBTQ community, which has seen GOP lawmakers passing bills to demonize the transgender community and gay culture while the Proud Boys and the Patriot Front harass and threaten LGBTQ events. I noted the parallels to the treatment of gay men in Nazi Germany as a marker of rising fascism here in the United States.
Rising crime and a growing number of mass shootings — including the high-profile incident that occurred on a crowded South Street a couple of weeks ago — is casting a negative aura around life in Philadelphia these days. The Inquirer has been striving to aggressively cover the roots of growing gun violence, the core problem. The latest, from veteran reporter Mensah M. Dean, shows one of the obvious Wild-West-style outcomes of more and more people buying weapons to protect themselves, which is that more and more shootings are ruled legally justified. In a time of crisis, newspapers that can step back and investigate social problems are vitally important for helping their community find potential solutions. Support our mission. Subscribe to The Inquirer.