July 31, 2019

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Good Wednesday morning. I have an exclusive about a memo sent out to staffers at the Los Angeles Times, but let’s start with CNN’s uneven performance hosting Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate.

Detroit debate debacle?

CNN takes flak for the set up of its debate format, plus antagonistic questioning and divisive prompts.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN this week in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

If the point of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate was for the candidates to fight each other, CNN’s trio of moderators supplied them with boxing gloves.

Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon — especially Tapper — spent much of the night posing questions that called for the candidates to disagree with one another. Specifically, the moderators drew a figurative line that had Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on one side and the rest of the candidates on the other.

Forget the national anthem. CNN should have started the night with famed ring announcer Michael Buffer saying, “L-L-L-Let’s get ready to rumble!!!!!!!!”

“The clear intent was to spark fights,” political commentator Eugene Robinson said on MSNBC’s post-debate show. “… That seemed to be the point of moderation.”

During the debate, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi tweeted, “The thrust of much of the questioning is, Which of your rivals for the nomination is really, really full of it?”

Because of that, Robinson said, no one had a chance to stand out as “presidential.”

That wasn’t the only criticism of the CNN moderators.

Vox’s Aaron Rupar went as far as to write, “People who tuned in to the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night could have been forgiven for thinking they accidentally turned the channel to Fox News. At times during the debate, CNN hosts framed policy questions around Republican talking points.”

Even candidate Bernie Sanders called out Tapper for asking a health care question by using a “Republican talking point.”

Another impediment to anyone having too big a night? A frustrating time limit that forced the moderators to keep cutting off candidates just as they were starting to express themselves, as if one minute is enough to describe a plan for health care. No one wants candidates filibustering, but such hard and short time limits made for half-answers and annoying distractions as moderators and candidates talked over one another.

The chosen topics — chiefly health care, climate and immigration — were fine, although the words “Mueller” and “Russia” and “impeachment” were never brought up. Neither was Joe Biden, who is leading most polls. (If you’re going to pit candidates against one another, don’t you bring up the leader in the clubhouse?)

It was not CNN’s finest hour. The time limits and, especially, the moderators’ insistence of pouring flames on a fire has tonight’s candidates rethinking their strategy — and likely giving them an advantage.

As Arianna Huffington tweeted right after Tuesday’s debate, “When CNN swaps out candidates for tomorrow’s debate, maybe they could also swap out the idea of using the questions to try to gin up pointless reality show conflict.”


L.A. confidential

The L.A. Times’ headquarters in El Segundo, California, in 2018. (Shutterstock)

Yesterday evening I had an exclusive on about some bad news at the Los Angeles Times. Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine and Managing Editor Scott Kraft sent out a memo to staff on Monday announcing that digital subscriptions are nowhere near where the Times hoped they would be and that the Times’ “future depends on rapid and substantial subscription revenue growth.”

The Times set a goal to double its digital subscriptions from just more than 150,000 to 300,000 this year. The memo said that the Times has added 52,000 digital subscriptions, but “significant cancellations during the same stretch” left the Times with a net increase of only 13,000 so far in 2019.

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

But in a phone interview Tuesday evening, Pearlstine told me, “I don’t think it’s ominous, I think it’s urgency and it’s just that we see a great opportunity and we have to move quickly. I don’t think it’s any secret that any publication that is driving a large percentage of its revenues from print needs to find new products for new audiences delivered on new platforms. If anything, I think after years of neglect and no investment, we just have so much catching up to do. So I don’t think of it as ominous, but I do think it’s important that we get out front after having been behind for so long.”

Currently, the Times has around 170,000 digital-only subscribers. Pearlstine said reaching 300,000 by year’s end will be difficult, but remains optimistic that the paper can reach 1 million subscriptions in the next few years.

There’s more in my story, as well as the entire memo Pearlstine and Kraft sent to the staff.


I’m only gonna say this once …

CNN President Jeff Zucker in April. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

CNN boss Jeff Zucker has endorsed a candidate for public office only once in his life. A decade ago, Zucker endorsed someone who was running for attorney general of California. At the time, he called that candidate not only the most important person in that state, but “in the entire country.”

That candidate? Kamala Harris, who is now running for a much bigger office.

David Catanese, McClatchy’s national political correspondent, smartly writes, “Zucker’s friendship with Harris, however, could open her up to early attacks not from her Democratic rivals but from Donald Trump, given the CNN chief’s tortured relationship with the president.”

At the time Zucker endorsed Harris for California’s attorney general, he was the CEO of NBC Universal. Zucker took over CNN in 2013 and Harris became a senator in 2016. Catanese reminded readers that Zucker and Trump used to be friends, too, when Trump’s show “The Apprentice” was on Zucker’s NBC.

This is news now because Harris will be among the Democratic hopefuls debating tonight on … CNN.


— Signed, Piqued in St. Pete

What if Dear Abby was an investigative journalist? That’s how Slate describes its new podcast. “How To!” is hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Charles Duhigg. The podcast is designed to “help listeners solve life’s greatest problems.”

Such as? Well, like how to be funny, how to withstand pain, how to rob a bank (wait, what?) and how to give your mom a kidney. Those first four episodes are available for download.

In a statement, Duhigg said, “Service journalism is some of the most important work reporters do, and we want to bring the tools of investigative reporting to a new realm: Your problems.”

Not sure robbing banks is a problem, but hey, it has me interested.


Houston journalists suffered Harvey trauma

Rescue boats fill a flooded street in 2017 as flood victims are evacuated in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Covering a natural disaster can take a physical toll. And a mental one, as well. Reporting for Journalist’s Resource, Chloe Reichel delved into some fascinating research done by Kent State University journalism and mass communications assistant professor Gretchen Dworznik-Hoak.

Dworznik-Hoak interviewed 30 journalists (reporters, editors, news anchors and meteorologists from newspapers and TV stations) two months after they covered Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that hit Texas in 2017. Those interviewed also took a survey that measured for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

The results of that survey showed one in five met the threshold for PTSD and 90% experiences some level of PTSD symptoms related to their hurricane coverage. In addition, two out of five met the threshold for depression, and 93% experienced symptoms of depression.


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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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  • Just for the record William K Black an Economics Professor and Attorney at University of Missouri kansas City wrote a Book “How to rob a bank : Own it”