February 28, 2022

Here is an absolutely heartbreaking video. It’s from Reuters. It’s a little boy named Mark Goncharuk. He is from Kyiv. As he rides to the Ukraine border in a bus towards safety, he fights through tears talking about his father who stayed behind to fight against the invading Russian military.

In between the important stories about Vladimir Putin’s actions, his threats, responses by NATO and, most of all, what is happening on the ground in Russia’s attack, we’ve seen countless gut-wrenching stories over the past several days that show the real impact of this senseless war.

And while nothing matches the bravery of the people fighting in Ukraine, the journalists there also are risking their lives to tell the stories that the world needs to know.

It’s impossible to chronicle all the incredible work being done by journalists throughout Ukraine and Russia, as well as Washington as this fluid story changes by the minute. To mention some and not mention others feels wrong.

But I will try to hit some of the highlights from what I saw.

I know I’ve seemingly been over-the-top in my effusive praise for CNN, but it really has become the go-to destination for Ukraine coverage. In particular, the reports from Matthew Chance and Clarissa Ward on the ground in Ukraine give viewers valuable insight into what is happening.

How do they do it? During an interview on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, Ward told host Brian Stelter about the team at CNN that is “combing exhaustively through all of the social media footage” who have been “working to geolocate it and place it in its appropriate context and have essentially been allowing us to try to get a better picture of what is happening on the ground when there are very real limitations on where and how we can move around.”

And then there is the danger in it all.

Fox News’ Trey Yingst told viewers, “We are doing well. We have a security team, an experienced crew that’s covered war all around the world and resources to cover the story holistically. Not only here in Kyiv, in Lviv, in Poland and around the world in Washington and our other bureaus. We are doing just fine and we’re focused on the people here in Ukraine and telling their story. Making sure we can shine a light in dark places.”

Speaking of “Reliable Sources,” Ekaterina Kotrikadze, the news director and anchor of Russia’s TV Rain — an independent station — said her station is already being censored by the government.

“(We’re under) huge threat,” Kotrikadze said. “It’s not easy to work here under these circumstances. We’re already declared foreign agents.”

Kotrikadze said she has received calls, presumably from the government, that she and her station needed to deliver only the “official version of this situation.” That includes not calling this a “war” but a “special operation.”

She added, “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be on the air.”

Then there’s the Kyiv Independent — which is producing amazing work. (Just check out their Twitter page.) WPTavern’s Sarah Gooding wrote, “The Kyiv Independent was created by 30 journalists who were previously employed at the Kyiv Post but fired for what they say was retaliation for exercising their editorial independence.”

And then we go back to the real human stories of this story. Take what happened on Fox News when “America Reports” anchor Sandra Smith was moved to tears when Ukrainian mother Olena Gnes, holding her baby, gave a tour inside a bomb shelter.

Gnes said, “Just a basement, and this is how it looks. … There you have more children, more people. We are sleeping on the chairs and floors and there is another corridor. So it’s not a fancy bomb shelter, it’s just a basement of a building. Some of them do not have even a normal floor. We washed it today, but most of the basements, they have just sand on the floor and there are no toilets. My sister is the deputy director at school and she’s the one responsible for the basement at her school. There are people and children who don’t have even toilets. They don’t have running water in their basement. We were not prepared for the war. We didn’t expect it to happen. It’s really crazy, because how can you be attacked like this if you didn’t do anything wrong? We were not attacking anyone and they came into our land and just started killing us. We need help.”

Here’s more on Russia-Ukraine:

Blasting away

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning and blasted away — not only at Russian president Vladimir Putin, but members of Romney’s own party.

About Putin, Romney told moderator Dana Bash, “John McCain was right. He said he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw the KGB. And that’s what we’re seeing, a small, evil, feral-eyed man who is trying to shape the world in the image where once again Russia would be an empire.”

Romney added, “And the people of the world see him and see Russia for what it is. And they’re saying, no, we will fight for freedom. And what we’re seeing is inspiring. It is powerful. And it will help change the world in a positive way.”

Meanwhile, Romney also went after Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and Arizona GOP Congressman Paul Gosar for recently speaking at the America First Political Action Conference, which was organized by white nationalist Nick Fuentes.

Romney told Bash, “Look, there is no place in either political party for this white nationalism or racism. It’s simply wrong … it’s evil as well. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, I don’t know them, but I’m reminded of that old line from the ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ movie where one character says, ‘Morons, I’ve got morons on my team.’ And I have to think anybody that would sit down with white nationalists and speak at their conference was certainly missing a few IQ points.”

Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state under Donald Trump, tweeted, “Associating with anti-Semitic neo-Nazis is not consistent with the conservative values I’ve defended for decades. Representative Taylor-Greene playing footsie with Nick Fuentes and his splinter movement is shameful.”

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A somber open

“Saturday Night Live” started this past Saturday’s show with cast members Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong introducing the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York. The choir then sang “Prayer for Ukraine.” Following that, McKinnon and Strong returned in front of a silent audience to deliver, in a much more serious tone than normal, the show’s traditional opening: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.”

Then the camera panned over to a table with candles that spelled out the word “Kyiv,” the Ukrainian capital.

It was powerful and touching, as you can see here.

The only other time during the show that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was mentioned came during the “Weekend Update” segment. Colin Jost and Michael Che had several items about it, including Jost, who started by saying, “This week Russia began their invasion of Ukraine. President Putin launched the attack with support from allies like Belarus and Tucker Carlson.”

Jost also said, “Many analysts were surprised Putin went through with the invasion, even though it was obviously going to be a colossal mistake. But they couldn’t back down after all that buildup. Kind of like how NBC still had to go through with airing the Winter Olympics.”

‘60 Minutes’ correspondent talks about his local newspaper story

A Denver Post employee holds up a placard during a rally against the paper’s ownership group, Alden Global Capital, in 2018. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“60 Minutes” correspondent Jon Wertheim did a strong piece that aired Sunday night about the grim state of local newspapers, in part because of how hedge funds, such as Alden Global Capital, have bought them up and gutted them. My colleague, Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds, has written extensively about this topic. But it was good to see “60 Minutes” put out a piece for its wide audience.

I had a chance to talk by phone with Wertheim on Sunday just a few hours before his story aired.

“It’s not stop-the-presses news that the newspaper industry is in decline,” Wertheim told me, “but I thought this angle that there are all these external forces of being cannibalized from within was a story that hasn’t been told so much.”

Wertheim said most assume that it’s because readers’ habits are changing — that people prefer reading news on their phones rather than an actual print newspaper. And, yes, that’s partly true. But many people, he said, aren’t aware of the damage being done by these hedge funds.

Of course, when hedge funds come in and slash resources and staff, the impact stretches well beyond the newspaper. It impacts communities, which might lose the watchdogs who hold those in power accountable. One such person that Wertheim featured in his piece was Evan Brandt, who literally is the last journalist standing at The Mercury in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

“Evan Brandt is absolutely a heroic figure,” Wertheim said. “What he has been asked to do and is doing is nothing short of heroism. And we’re all trying to figure out this model. There’s a new idea all the time. Let’s go hyperlocal, let’s pivot to video. We’re all trying to solve this riddle while the news still happens. And these guys on the front lines — it’s absolutely heroic work that they are doing under pretty challenging circumstances.”

There are papers that are thriving, with The New York Times leading the way. Several other newspapers — such as The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal — benefit from incredibly wealthy owners. Some other local papers, such as The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, have found success, too.

But what about the majority of papers? What happens to them over the next decade? I asked that question of Wertheim, who, by the way, also continues to write for another legendary publication — Sports Illustrated —  that has had its challenges in recent years.

“I’m not entirely convinced that the billionaire benefactor is the perfect answer either,” Wertheim said, “but it’s better than the alternative. … I think there are a lot of people that care about solving this riddle.”

He added, “The fact that despite all the challenges and all the uncertainty and no one knows quite where this train is going, you still have people who value this and have the skill set and they want to get in, and their eyes are wide open … you still have a lot of young people who think this is important and they want to get into it. I think that ought to be a real source of optimism. And, at the same time, someone has got to solve this riddle.”

Wertheim and the Report for America reporters featured in the piece still believe there’s an audience for local news and know how important it is.

The issue is hedge funds such as Alden don’t seem interested in solving the riddle. They seem more interested in making money. As Wertheim pointed out in the piece, there’s nothing wrong with making money. But Alden is making lots of money and still cutting resources and staff at many of its papers.

Heath Freeman, the president of Alden, turned down interview requests from “60 Minutes.” But Alden’s PR team passed along the message that Alden is committed to providing “robust, independently minded local journalism.”

“Not only was it astonishing to me, but I think it’s fairly telling that someone overseeing thousands of journalists did not see fit to sit down for an on-the-record interview,” Wertheim said. “You’re essentially the boss of thousands of people whose job it is to hold people accountable and you don’t make yourself available for an interview — that was fairly striking to me.”

In addition to the piece that aired on “60 Minutes,” here’s the “60 Minutes” overtime piece with more.

Speaking of Alden …

Alden loses again

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

Alden Global Capital has whiffed a second time in its legal effort to block Lee Enterprises from reelecting two veteran directors at its annual meeting March 10. On Friday afternoon, Delaware Chancery Court dismissed motions by an Alden affiliate that sought to change voting rules for the meeting or get the meeting postponed. The court had earlier ruled that Alden had not made a case for having its own slate of two candidates to be considered.

Hedge fund Alden is still urging Lee shareholders to vote no on directors Mary Junck, a former CEO, and Herbert Moloney. At best, though, it might find a few allies in its fight to gain more influence with Lee and ultimately take over the chain of 77 dailies.

Asked for comment by email, an Alden representative did not respond.

CNN’s next president

Chris Licht (right), alongside Stephen Colbert after winning an Emmy Award last September. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Look for an announcement this week that Chris Licht will be the next president of CNN. He will become the permanent replacement for Jeff Zucker, who resigned amid controversy earlier this month. (Puck’s Dylan Byers was the first to break the story.)

Licht is a veteran TV producer who helped create MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and helped revamp “CBS This Morning.” He is currently the executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

Licht will take over when CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, completes its merger with Discovery. That’s expected to happen in the next month or two. The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin wrote, “Mr. Licht and David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery, are professional and social friends who have known each other for more than a decade. Discussions between Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav began shortly after Mr. Zucker’s departure, and accelerated over the past two weeks, one of the people said.”

The question now is can an executive who has had an excellent track record of turning around individual news/entertainment programs successfully take over an entire network?

While Zucker’s nine-year run as CNN president ended after he, in part, failed to reveal he was in a relationship with one of his top lieutenants, there’s no question that the network thrived under Zucker, who was quite popular among his employees. In the past week with Russia’s attack on Ukraine, we’ve seen just how exceptional CNN’s coverage of breaking news can be. While the networks and cable news stations have all done admirable work, CNN’s coverage has been must-watch.

Joe Biden’s SCOTUS pick

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks after President Joe Biden announced Jackson as his nominee to the Supreme Court last Friday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated the news, but another significant news story broke late last week when President Joe Biden selected Ketanji Brown Jackson as his Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring.

Jackson is on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and, if confirmed, would become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court in its 233-year history.

The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim, Sean Sullivan and Tyler Pager have a solid look into Jackson’s nomination with “Inside Biden’s pick of Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court.”

The Post writes, “The White House took pains both publicly and in private to portray a truly deliberative process, with people associated with other finalists receiving requests from administration officials as late as the middle of this week to provide background material. But ultimately, few in Washington expected the president to choose someone other than Jackson, who had been considered for the high court since at least 2016 and was long seen as the leading candidate for an eventual vacancy during the Biden administration.”

The Post reporters added that a source told them Biden liked that Jackson was a law clerk for Breyer: “The president has deep affection for Breyer and wanted to replace him with someone in his mold, the official said, emphasizing Jackson not only worked directly for Breyer, but she also served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission like her former boss.”

Here are a few other stories to check out:

Impactful journalist dies

Richard Curtis, who emphasized photos and colorful graphics as one of the original designers of USA Today, has died from cancer. He was 75.

Curtis joined USA Today in 1982 and was the paper’s managing editor of graphics and photography for 27 years. Before that, he worked at papers in Baltimore, Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida. In 1979, he co-founded the Society for News Design.

David Colton and J. Ford Huffman wrote for USA Today, “As part of the Gannett editorial team that launched USA TODAY in 1982, Curtis helped oversee an unprecedented reliance on bite-size and full-page graphics to convey news and information. He was a tireless advocate for visual storytelling, convincing editors and skeptical reporters that more readers scanned graphics and read photo captions than sometimes read the story itself.”

Colton and Huffman added, “That uber-visual approach, which many say was an influencer of online news to come, was widely copied by others.”

Be sure to read Colton and Huffman’s story, which is full of interesting details about Curtis, his work and his influence.

State of the Union

Joe Biden will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday. It is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern. The Republican response will air after. Most TV coverage will begin at 8 — an hour before Biden’s speech.

Look for all the networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS) and the cable news networks to bring in all their journalism heavyweights for the coverage. Rachel Maddow is even coming off her hiatus to help host MSNBC’s coverage. (Maddow was back last week to lead prime-time Ukraine coverage and will be back again in her chair tonight.)

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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