Public Manchin, Private Manchin

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In yesterday’s post “Democrats Even Madder at Manchin,” I accused the West Virginia Senator of “pulling away the football” after scuttling yet another deal made by his party’s caucus. Washington Post Congressional bureau chief Paul Kane offers a different take.

For a full year, Democrats have tried to divine what Sen. Joe Manchin III would say yes to, beginning with private huddles last fall at the White House to more recent Zooms with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

They seem to have all made the same mistake: hearing the nice tones that the West Virginia Democrat said in their private meetings, while dismissing his pessimistic comments in public as standard negotiating ploys.

Instead, Manchin is the odd politician whose public pronouncements, whether in brief Capitol hallway interviews or in detailed prepared statements, carry more weight than whatever he tells his colleagues in private.

Offhand, that strikes me as a distinction without a difference. He’s deliberately signaling to colleagues that he’s negotiating in good faith and then gets the vapors when it comes time to shake hands. But Kane persists:

[I]n private, Manchin often allows other negotiators to hear what they want to hear. He says nice things about certain proposals, talks about wanting to get a deal, creating what turns out to be false momentum for the really big deal.

Out in the hallways, after those meetings, Manchin has continually delivered more neutral assessments of where things stood.

His comments to the press Wednesday, after the latest scorching inflation report showed prices continuing to rise, telegraphed his decision Thursday to support only the slimmest of measures.

“I’m very, very cautious. And I’m going to make sure that I have every input on scrubbing everything humanly possible that could be considered inflammatory,” Manchin told reporters that day.

He said it was “not tougher at all” to reach a deal after that inflation report because it only confirmed his fears that he has been talking about for months.

“I was talking about inflation before it was even thought about it. Now I’m more concerned than ever,” he told reporters.

So, yes, it’s true that Manchin has been warning about big spending packages leading to inflation for quite a long time. If he was never going to sign off on these deals, that’s his right. From the beginning, I’m defended his rather unique position of being a Democrat from a one of the most conservative states in the union and cautioned his colleagues to be careful in what they wished for when railing against him.

But the very essence of legislating is reaching acceptable compromises. Manchin, by virtue of potentially being the 50th vote in a reconciliation package (which is therefore exempt from the filibuster), holds all the leverage. So, why not be clear on where he stands? Whatever his threshold is simply has to serve as the ceiling for a deal (unless Krysten Sinema has a low threshold on a particular issue).

“Allow[ing] other negotiators to hear what they want to hear” is dishonest, cowardly, or both. Either way, it’s inimical to the legislative process.

The post Public Manchin, Private Manchin first appeared on Outside the Beltway.

Biden and bin Salman

The US-Saudi relationship has long been an odd one, with the ostensible leader of the free world being forced to overlook massive human rights violations in exchange for cooperation on oil prices and stability in a volatile region. Things have to say the least, not improved in recent years, with multiple incidents of Saudi nationalists murdering American citizens in acts of terrorism.

President Biden’s weekend trip to smooth things over has, not surprisingly, been without controversy.

CNN (“Biden’s fist bump with MBS ‘a win’ for US President: Saudi foreign minister“):

Joe Biden’s controversial fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was “a win” for the US President, the Saudi foreign minister told CNN in an exclusive interview on Saturday.

The US President has faced a backlash over the informal way he greeted the kingdom’s de facto ruler on his arrival in Jeddah on Friday. Critics have said the fist bump was inappropriate given US suspicions that the Crown Prince was responsible for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and Biden’s subsequent 2020 campaign trail pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah”.

“Suspicions” my ass. He ordered him murdered.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan played down the controversy in an interview with CNN’s Nic Robertson hours after the President left Jeddah on Saturday.

“I see the image as a win for President Biden,” bin Farhan said.

“He got out of it a meeting with a key leader in the region. He got out of it, I think, reinvigoration of the strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States.”

Bin Farhan said it was “quite normal” that the leaders had exchanged “pleasantries”, adding, “I don’t know why we’re hung up on a fist bump.”

Considering that the image was released by the Saudi Press Agency, he knows damned well why we’re “hung up” on it. It signifies friendship and respect, seemingly conveying approval. One doesn’t generally fist bump a person one believes responsible for the torture and dismemberment of a journalist from an American newspaper.

Biden came to Jeddah seeking solutions to one of his top political problems at home — sky-high gas prices — as diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East was seen as one of the few routes he could take to bring down prices that are putting strain on millions of Americans. Bin Farhan said the Crown Prince was open to increasing Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity — within limits.

“The most important point in the Crown Prince’s statement today was that we need to have a balanced approach towards our energy transition because the kingdom, while it’s increasing its capacity to 13 million barrels cannot go beyond that,” he said.

However, critics say Biden’s visit has been overshadowed by lingering unease over human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Concerns over the optics of the trip were highlighted on Saturday as it emerged that when Biden had raised the matter of Khashoggi’s killing, the Crown Prince responded by saying the US had “made its own mistakes”. In particular, the Crown Prince referenced the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the May killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abbu Akleh in the occupied West Bank as incidents that reflected poorly on the United States.

This surely did not come as a surprise. It’s the kind of thing Donald Trump says in justifying despots.

For its part, the White House has defended Biden’s use of the fist bump as part of an effort to reduce physical contact amid the rapid spread of a new coronavirus variant, noting that Biden also fist-bumped several Israeli leaders before his arrival in Jeddah.

This . . . is not helping. I have plenty of criticisms of the Israeli government over the years. They have committed human rights abuses of their own. They are not, however, monsters. And they’re genuine American allies sharing most of the same values.

On returning to the White House Saturday evening, Biden appeared annoyed when asked whether he regretted the greeting. “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters. I’m happy to answer a question that matters,” he said.

It actually matters quite a lot, Mr. President.

The meeting between Biden and the Crown Prince was among the most closely watched moments of Biden’s landmark visit to the Middle East, with the controversy distracting from some of the other items on the President’s agenda — including discussions of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Before Biden’s arrival, Saudi Arabia had been pressuring the US to provide security guarantees if negotiations with Iran were to fail. The last round of talks between the US and Iran resulted in a standstill.

In a statement following the meeting, the White House said Biden had “affirmed the United States’ commitment to working with Saudi Arabia and other allies and partners in the Middle East to integrate and enhance security cooperation.”

Again, I get it. The United States has worked with some incredibly unsavory regimes in the past and will almost certainly continue to do so.

Indeed, President Bush the Younger was infamously photographed holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah while hosting him at his Crawford ranch almost twenty years ago. He was criticized for that—and for hypocrisy, given how much the Global War on Terror was ostensibly about global freedom and spreading democratic values.

Diplomacy is a messy business. But this trip was poorly handled. It’s not as though this controversy was a surprise. His staff let him down here.

And he’s paying the price for it with brutal criticism from all sides.

Robin Wright, The New Yorker (“Biden Caters to Autocrats and Draws Battle Lines in the Middle East“):

On his final stop, in Jeddah, Biden held talks with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The C.I.A. has concluded that M.B.S., as he’s popularly known, authorized the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for the Washington Post, in 2018. Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get documents to legalize his impending marriage. “Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered—and, I believe, on the orders of the crown prince,” Biden declared, at a Presidential debate, during the 2020 campaign. He called Saudi Arabia’s current government a “pariah” with “little” redeeming value. He vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price.” Khashoggi’s body has still not been recovered.

In an open letter to Biden, published in the Post, Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, implored him to cancel the visit. She had waited for Khashoggi outside the consulate as he was suffocated and his body was sawed into pieces. “The details of the suffering he endured have haunted me,” she wrote. She was horrified that Khashoggi’s killers “roamed free” as the U.S. funnelled billions of dollars in military equipment to the Saudi government. The trip “represents not just an unprecedented capitulation to M.B.S.’s reckless, unaccountable rule but an unprecedented doubling down on support for the autocrats of the region, gifting them with a security agreement that no U.S. Administration has ever committed to in the past,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of dawn, a pro-democracy group founded by Khashoggi, told me. (On Friday, Biden said that he confronted M.B.S. about the killing.)

Bethan McKernan, The Guardian (“Oil trumps human rights as Biden forced to compromise in Middle East“):

For all the careful choreography of Joe Biden’s Middle East tour, the White House made a major miscalculation when the president finally came face to face with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for the first time.

Before Air Force One left Washington, the administration said that Biden would be avoiding physical contact and not shaking hands owing to a rise in Covid cases, a move widely believed to allow him to avoid creating an uncomfortable photo op with the powerful heir to the throne.

But the image of the two leaders leaning towards each other, hesitant smiles on their faces as they bumped fists, came across as more relaxed and familiar than the US president probably intended.

Biden came to office determined to take a firmer line with the strongmen and autocrats beloved by Donald Trump. He had a particular enmity towards Prince Mohammed, the ambitious 36-year-old who deposed his uncle to become next in line as king, waged a ruinous war in Yemen, and locked up or killed his critics.

On the campaign trail, in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”. He has since refused to speak to the crown prince directly, liaising instead with his ailing father, King Salman. Shortly after arriving in the White House, Biden released US intelligence findings – suppressed by Trump – which concluded that Prince Mohammed approved the operation targeting the Washington Post journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

When the US president brought up Khashoggi with the de facto Saudi ruler on Friday, the prince reportedly hit back, accusing Washington of hypocrisy by not investigating the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, and for allowing the abuse of inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Yet Riyadh has been one of Washington’s closest strategic partners for decades for a reason that no US president can ignore. Biden has heard the siren song of the kingdom’s vast oil reserves: the war in Ukraine has unleashed chaos in global oil markets, and he can no longer refuse the call.

Worse yet, Biden’s attempts to do damage control seem to be backfiring.

Peter Baker, NYT (“Biden Says He Confronted Saudi Prince Over Khashoggi. How True Is That?“):

As President Biden told the tale, it sounded pretty dramatic.

After meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, on Friday for the first time since taking office, the president insisted that he had pointedly blamed him for the murder of the columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it,” Mr. Biden recounted to reporters. “I indicated that I thought he was.”

The only hitch? That’s not the way it happened, according to Saudi officials. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, who was present for the encounter, told reporters that he had not heard the president blame the crown prince.

The White House on Saturday did not back down. “The president was very clear about the conversation, and we stand by his account,” said John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.

Asked by reporters after landing back in Washington whether the Saudi minister was telling the truth, Mr. Biden replied simply, “No.” He seemed exasperated by the second-guessing of his trip. When a reporter asked if he regretted the fist bump he had greeted Prince Mohammed with, he complained, “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters?”

Both sides had an interest in spinning the closed-door meeting. Mr. Biden has been denounced by rights groups, media organizations and politicians in both parties for meeting with the crown prince, who the C.I.A. says ordered the 2018 operation that killed Mr. Khashoggi, a United States resident and columnist for The Washington Post. By promoting how tough he was behind closed doors, the president clearly hoped to defuse some of the criticism for abandoning his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”

For their part, the Saudis were eager to present the meeting as a return to business as usual between the leaders of two longtime allies, and had every hope of minimizing the lasting import of the Khashoggi case. Mr. Jubeir confirmed to reporters that Mr. Biden had raised the matter but characterized it in less confrontational terms. The last thing the Saudis wanted was the image of a president lecturing their young leader.

Indeed, both sides were acutely attuned to the choreography of the encounter. American news photographers traveling in the White House motorcade were given no opportunity to get in place to capture the image of the president greeting the crown prince upon his arrival at a palace here, a picture Mr. Biden’s aides had dreaded. The Saudi government, for its part, made sure its official photographers were everywhere and snapped myriad shots of the two together, which were promptly posted online.

Mr. Biden is by nature a storyteller with a penchant for embellishment. He has often told the story of meeting President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in 2011 as vice president and telling him, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Others present at the time had no memory of that specific exchange.

Mr. Biden has similarly described an unvarnished confrontation in 1993 with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalist leader who unleashed an ethnic war in the Balkans. “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one,” Mr. Biden, then a senator, related having told Mr. Milosevic, according to a 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep.” Some other people in the room later said they did not recall that line.

Mr. Biden likes presenting himself as standing up to dictators and crooked figures. Another favorite story stemmed from a meeting with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in 2008, when the Afghan leader denied that his government was awash in corruption. Mr. Biden said he grew so irritated that he threw down his napkin, declared, “This dinner is over,” and stormed out.

Often, others in the room for such sessions say that some version of what Mr. Biden has described did take place, only not with quite as much camera-ready theatricality. During his presidential campaign, for instance, he told a moving story about honoring a war hero that fact checkers at The Post later concluded conflated elements of three actual events into a version that did not happen.

All of us, from time to time, will falter in the moment only to come up with the words one wishes one had said after the fact. Biden, it seems, likes to pretend that he actually said them. Charitably, that’s a reflection of who he wishes himself to be. In the movies, the hero is always ready with the right lines. In real life we don’t have a script.

Regardless, as David Sanger and Peter Baker write in the NYT (“As Biden Reaches Out to Mideast Dictators, His Eyes Are on China and Russia“) these uncomfortable optics come in service to an actual policy agenda.

During his painful encounters with a series of Arab strongmen here in Saudi Arabia this weekend, President Biden kept returning to a single reason for renewing his relationship with American allies who fall on the wrong side of the struggle he often describes as a battle between “democracy and autocracy.”

“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Mr. Biden said at a session on Saturday with nine Arab leaders in a cavernous hotel ballroom in this ancient port on the Red Sea. “And we’ll seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”

Mr. Biden’s framing of America’s mission as part of a renewed form of superpower competition was revealing. For decades, American presidents largely saw the Middle East as a hotbed of strife and instability, a place the United States needed a presence largely to keep oil flowing and eliminate terrorist havens. Now, more than 20 years after a group of Saudis left this country to stage terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and strike the Pentagon, Mr. Biden is driven by a new concern: That his forced dance with dictators, while distasteful, is the only choice if his larger goal is to contain Russia and outmaneuver China.

A return to “great power competition” was ostensibly at the center of President Trump’s national security strategy and, arguably, that was presaged by President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” back in 2011. But Biden seems to genuinely be prioritizing said competition and organizing the rest of his foreign policy around that.

“We’re getting results,” he insisted on Friday night as he emerged from a meeting with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who clearly sees the opportunity to get diplomatic rehabilitation after Mr. Biden refused to see him for months, accusing him of complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

Mr. Biden’s effort here to negotiate greater oil production — jarring enough for a president who came to office vowing to help wean the world from fossil fuels — is driven by the need to make Russia pay a steep price for invading Ukraine.

To be sure, it’s also motivated by domestic politics. Americans are furious at the higher prices at the pump.

So far, that price has been scant: Not only are the Russians continuing to collect substantial oil and gas revenues, they are even supplying Saudi Arabia, Reuters reported recently, with fuel for its power plants — at discounted prices.

Perhaps the most notable of Mr. Biden’s flurry of announcements with the Saudis was an agreement signed Friday night to cooperate on a new technology to build next-generation 5G and 6G telecommunications networks in the country. The United States’ main competitor in that field is China — and Huawei, China’s state-favored competitor, which has made significant inroads in the region.

It is all part of a larger Biden administration effort to begin pushing back on Beijing in parts of the world where for years the Chinese government has made progress without feeling much competition.

Three weeks ago, at the NATO summit meeting, Mr. Biden celebrated a new “strategic concept” for the Western alliance that, for the first time, recognized China as a systemic “challenge,” describing its policies as coercive and its cyberoperations around the world as malicious. The doctrine said that along with Russia, Beijing was trying to “subvert the rules-based international order,” words similar to those the Biden administration has used on this trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

After that summit, European officials said they would focus on pushing back on China’s influence inside Europe, and on reducing dependency on its electronics, software and other products.

The effort here in Jeddah is similar — to show that the United States will help push back on Chinese and Russian influence. Mr. Biden outlined a five-part “new framework for the Middle East” that included supporting economic development, military security and democratic freedoms. “Let me conclude by summing all this up in one sentence,” he said. “The United States is invested in building a positive future in the region in partnership with all of you, and the United States is not going anywhere.”

Frustrating though it may be, human rights aren’t always at the top of our foreign policy agenda. Certainly, the prospect of China setting the global agenda is more problematic than how the Saudi government treats its subjects.

The post Biden and bin Salman first appeared on Outside the Beltway.

Democracy Dies in Dumbness

Poynter has published an essay from Tara McGowan, founder of Good Information Inc., with the subhed, “Paywalls bolster news organizations’ bottom lines, but leave Americans in the dark. As a public service, let everyone read election stories for free.”

Much has already been said, tweeted and complained about The Washington Post’s tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” that was unveiled at the start of the Trump administration. It’s harsh, foreboding and alarming. But it’s also true. When people don’t know the facts, a government of the people is impossible.

So then why do the Post and many other legacy news publishers leave so many Americans in the dark?

See, if you want to read a Post article, including this one about how they came up with the tagline back in 2017, you might be blocked by a paywall. Big Tech giants like Facebook and Google are gorging on the advertising revenue that once sustained news organizations, so the publications have tightened access to their products to get people to pay for it through subscriptions. While that strategy has helped bolster news organizations’ bottom lines at a time when a healthy free press is sorely needed, it has also had the dangerous side effect of leaving the vast majority of Americans in the dark.

The answer to the Why is rather obvious: it’s really expensive to run a news operation. The Washington Post is a prestige outlet, so young journalists are willing to work there at something of a discount. But it’s really expensive to live in DC, New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago—the cities where our best newspapers are published—so there’s only so little they can accept. More senior reporters, editors, publishers, and the like command more money. And that’s to say nothing of the expenses of actually gathering the news. Or printing a newspaper, running websites, and keeping the lights on. The Washington Post is a major undertaking. There’s only so much even a Jeff Bezos is going to be willing to lose operating it.

I often refer to people who don’t pay for news as “passive” news consumers. That doesn’t suggest a moral failing on their part. It just means they’re simply consuming the news that comes to them through their daily scrolling of social media feeds, email inboxes and conversations with people they trust.

American news consumers fall into three groups today: a small lobbying class that can afford thousands of dollars in news-analysis subscriptions like Politico Pro; a larger but still very limited group that will pay to get behind paywalls; and by far the largest group of Americans — those who will not or cannot pay for their news.

So, I’m in the middle group. I pay for monthly access to the NYT, WSJ,* the Atlantic, and various niche sites. I’d pay for WaPo as well but I’m eligible for a free subscription thanks to a .mil email address. (It used to be free with a .edu, which I also have, but that was discontinued long ago.) I’d pay for LAT if it were cheap enough but it doesn’t provide enough unique content to justify it otherwise.

But here’s the thing: outside of a few short years beginning in the late aughts, I’ve always paid for daily news reporting. I had a NYT paper subscription as an undergrad. As an Army officer, I paid for daily copies of Stars and Stripes, usually by putting a quarter into a newsbox. As a grad student, I paid for both the NYT and the Tuscaloosa News. As I moved around, I paid for the Chattanooga Free Press, the Bainbridge (Georgia) Post-Searchlight, and WaPo. At some point during my blogging career, I stopped taking the print edition of WaPo and just relying on free access to the various newspaper websites. (And there was never I time, going back to my high school days, when I wasn’t subscribing to at least a couple of magazines.)

Was I a bit miffed when paywalls started going up? Sure. I had gotten accustomed to getting all the content I wanted for free. And early attempts to put up paywalls at NYT and elsewhere failed because some other outlet would simply “re-report” any stories they broke. Eventually, though, the sheer necessity of figuring out a way to make the businesses profitable forced just everybody worth reading behind a paywall.

Does it suck for those unable or unwilling to pay? Sure. But, again, until 20 years ago, the notion that you could get the local newspaper—much less NYT, WaPo, and WSJ—for free would have been absurd. And 25 years ago, it was damned near impossible to get the great national papers on the same day they came out at any price. (NYT tended to have arrangements to deliver copies to locked containers at various universities, maybe just in the eastern part of the country.)

Further, the amount of still-free news that exists today would have been unimaginable back then. Google News, YahooNews, CNN, and NPR alone provide enough to keep most people reasonably informed. And that’s to say nothing of CNN and NPR’s broadcast outlets.

Passive consumers may have faith that good, accurate news about the world and their own communities will somehow find them. But with few exceptions, they’re wrong about that. Increasingly, the fact-based news that’s necessary for a pro-democracy citizenry is behind a paywall. On social media, passive consumers are more likely to see propaganda that capitalizes on the ways information is distributed there. Biased algorithms reward salacious and emotionally charged content — often favoring right-leaning messaging that is outright false. Platforms could turn off these algorithms with a click, but we know that they won’t — because disinformation is their business model.

So, if you’re getting your news primarily from your Facebook feed, you’re simply not interested in being a contributing member of society. And it wouldn’t matter if Steve Inskeep personally knocked on your door offering to give you a briefing; you’re just not going to listen.

McGowan disagrees.

We don’t have to accept this. News organizations can take their own actions right now to channel their pro-democracy mission statements into action, get good information to the people who need it most, and slow the spread of disinformation. Here are some ways:

Make 2022 election coverage free.

Most news outlets with paywalls have a policy to offer certain news stories for free when the story is of overriding public importance. They did just that in the early days of the pandemic. The future of our democracy is a critical enough issue to fall under that policy, isn’t it? And publishers should realize that dropping the paywall for election news is not economic suicide. In fact, most local news outlets saw an increase in subscriptions at the start of the pandemic even though they made their coronavirus stories free. Why? Because their coverage reminded consumers that they were a valuable product for the long term.

So, while the pandemic was far and away the most pressing story of 2020—people were literally dying—it wasn’t the only story. People were still willing to pay to get access to other news. If the papers give away politics coverage—the bread and butter of national outlets—there’s essentially nothing left. What are people going to pay for? Wordles? Recipes?

Create a pro-democracy underwriting program.

If news outlets are worried that they’ll lose money by making their most click-worthy political content free, they should find corporate sponsors for that content. This would be the kind of image marketing that works for many companies today. Many corporations are being called out for funding pro-insurrection candidates. Surely there are corporations out there that would want to be on a list of businesses that support democracy by bolstering a free press.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

News outlets have spent the last two decades plus trying to replace the advertising model. If there were good samaritan corporations out there interested in funding news coverage, don’t you think they’d have been found by now?

Now, I’m sure there are companies out there who would be willing to sponsor certain categories of content so long as they had editorial control over it. But, rather obviously, that’s counter to McGowan’s goal.

Team up to spread free, reliable information.

An encouraging trend in U.S. journalism is collaboration among news organizations. Often a for-profit outlet teams up with a nonprofit newsroom, or multiple nonprofit news outlets get together on a project to lift up under-covered stories and voices, or reach new audiences. In either case, the stories they collaborate on are often available for free online. This growing trend toward mission-first and nonprofit news must be supercharged by people who have the money to make a difference.

Good luck with that. Bezos bought the Post, which I believe remains a top-notch newspaper. But many are understandably leery that coverage of Amazon’s many businesses is more timid than it would otherwise be.

And, again, if there were a lot of billionaires out there itching to provide great journalism for free, don’t you think they’d have announced themselves? They tend not to be a timid lot.

Stop writing for the elite.

Even with historic turnout records in 2018 and 2020, more than half of eligible voters didn’t cast ballots. One reason: The vast majority of political news coverage is written for elites. Most Americans don’t care about electoral horse races or legislative sausage-making. That style of reporting actually exacerbates Americans’ distaste for and mistrust of our government and the media. Effective reporting informs people about decisions that impact their families, who makes those decisions, and what motivates those decisions. And because humans are the way that they are, the most effective method to inform people is through storytelling. Put everyday people — not senators — at the center of stories. (Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan has great advice on this.)

So, first off, 66.9% of the voting-eligible population voted in the 2020 election—the highest total on record. The lowest turnouts in recent times were in 1996 and 1988—before paywalls, or even the World Wide Web—were a thing.

Second, while the critique of horserace politics is as valid as it is longstanding, there’s a reason why it continues to dominate: the kind of people who read about politics in the 45 months of the 48-month presidential cycle that 85% of the country tunes out are very interested in it. You and I, reader of a politics blog in July of an off-year cycle, are among them. We happen to be the kind of people who fit into McGowan’s second category: non-passive news consumers willing to pay to keep the lights on at newspapers.

I also consume sports (mostly Crimson Tide and Dallas Cowboys football) coverage year-round, even during the very long offseasons when there’s very little news. I always laugh when people who not only pay to subscribe to sites like The Athletic but participate in its message boards bitch that the sportswriters are offering speculation about the upcoming season in June when, after all, the games will play out in the fall. I mean, what the hell else are they supposed to write about from February through August?

Politics, obviously, offers more real news than football because there’s no offseason. But coverage of, say, Build Back Better is very inside-baseball and of very little news to any but the wonkiest policy wonk. So, it becomes a soap opera about the latest drama involving Joe Manchin because that provides characters and a plotline.

Go where non-subscribing Americans are.

When it comes to news media, the old adage “if you build it they will come” is not only irrelevant, but dangerously out of touch. To reach specific groups of people, you need to show up where they spend their time. Concise and direct presentation is vital. We founded Courier Newsroom in 2019 to provide passive consumers with fact-based journalism from a progressive perspective. We proactively find and target these audiences because social algorithms will simply not do that for us, and all of our original reporting is available to them for free where they get their information online.

One strategy that news outlets can deploy immediately is to boost their content directly to specific new audiences through targeted ad spends on platforms like Facebook and Google, using third-party data or their own targeting capabilities — the same way their marketing teams are targeting likely paying subscribers to grow their audiences and bottom lines.

I lack the technical know-how to evaluate this suggestion. I push out OTB content to Twitter and used to do the same to Facebook before they blocked auto-posting.

But the obvious question arises: Courier Newsroom has been doing this since 2019. Why is there still a problem to be solved? Clearly, all the progressive news that’s fit to print has now been absorbed by the great unwashed masses. Right?

Another approach is to build new capacity in newsrooms to identify the digital spaces where under-reached audiences spend their time and to share content through existing trusted messengers to these communities. The key is to go where they are, and make the information as accessible as possible. Think Instagram carousels and TikTok videos, not 2,000-word stories or clickbaity headlines. The Post’s investment in TikTok and relatively new approach to sharing headline graphics on Instagram is worth emulating.

So . . . and I’m just spitballin’ here . . . what if this solution actually just reinforces the problem?

Look,, there’s simply no shortage of news out there. I can get all of the politics I want from NPR, BBC, Reuters, and numerous other high-quality, low-bias websites. There’s a near-infinite supply of high-quality podcasts out there. All for free, sometimes without even having to fast forward past the ads.

If you’re not willing to read 2000-word stories or listen to a 45-minute podcast and are getting your news from fucking TikTok and Instagram, you’re a goddamn simpleton who should not be allowed to leave your home, much less help decide who our next President is. We really, really, really, should not encourage more people to join their ranks.

I’ve long advocated some sort of universal subscription service, much like we have for music and video content, that allows people to pay for access to a wide range of content rather than having to pay for individual access to multiple papers. Few people, indeed, can justify paying for both WaPo and NYT, let alone a half dozen papers; there’s just too much overlap. But most of us would like to have unfettered access to them all and be willing to pay some sort of tiered rate.

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*WSJ is a great paper but I’d never been willing to pay its premium subscription rate. A few months back, they were offering it for something like $3 or $4 a month for the first year. I’ll likely cancel after that unless I can get a similar discount.

The post Democracy Dies in Dumbness first appeared on Outside the Beltway.