Real news, in my opinion

Fake news was real.

Me and Mike

Mike and me, outgoing and incoming heads of History Division, AEJMC

There really were a bunch of teenagers in a former Communist city in the former Yugoslavia cranking out confections with tabloid-headlines quoting fake FBI sources saying Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted, or whatever.

Kids will be kids, and on social media, they learn fast. These kids learned that the American click-bait market paid better than the Eurozone, and that politics worked better than listicals, and that pro-Trump scams were easier to manufacture than cat videos.

So they flourished for a while during the 2016 presidential campaigns, fooling Trump fans with more than 100 websites that sounded like red-blooded right-wing American political sites. But the system is self-correcting. Sort of. BuzzFeed and The Guardian exposed the fraud. Google and Facebook said they would shut down fake news sites. Not much damage was done. Oh yeah, except Donald Trump was elected president.

Trump is amazing. You have to admit it. A shameless swindler on a scale that makes the Music Man and Wizard of Oz seem puritanical. To say he “lies” misses the point. Poets lie in one way. Swindlers lie in another. But it’s not really lying. It goes with the vocation.

If his dominance were just reality TV, pro wrestling or tabloid news, we could be entertained or put off, as New Yorkers and cheated contractors and golf partners have been for decades.

But we’re media historians and communication professors, not quite his “enemy of the American people,” but fellow travelers. To add another swirl to his libido for confusion, he misappropriates the term “fake news” by applying it to the New York Times and CNN.

The “failing” New York Times (with stock rising from $13 to $18 a share in the past year) does indeed commit factual errors every day. That’s journalism. Trump applies the term fake news to real journalism in two ways. One is for news he doesn’t like. The other is for when there’s an error in a news story he doesn’t like.

How do you teach this stuff these days? How do you study it?

Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed who exposed the fake-news prodigies of Macedonia, is a leading expert on fake news and on the related problem of online verification of rumors (about which he produced a good study in 2015 for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism). I enjoyed his keynote address at AEJMC in Chicago, although his narrow definition of fake news came in for debate at a later conference session.

Silverman defined fake news as made-up online material designed only to make money, not to advance an agenda. When it is to advance an agenda, he said, it’s propaganda.

Either way, I was inspired after that session to post on my Facebook page the following resolution: “I will not open any more shared sites unless I recognize the source. I don’t mean the person sharing. I mean the link. I recommend this practice to all. You can ask the person sharing to please describe why they trust some fresh source you’ve never heard of. We can solve this problem.” I would include my nephew’s amateur video that has gotten more than five million hits.

In the History Division’s final research session on Saturday, Julien Gorbach of the University of Hawaii presented a paper proposing a more elaborate taxonomy of made-up news, “Not Your Grandpa’s Hoax: A Comparative History of Fake News.” Gorbach goes back to Defoe, The New York Sun and Poe to categorize types of hoaxes that have always played out in the history of journalism. But in the age of social media, the “fun” of yesteryear’s hoaxes has been replaced by real danger, from hijacked elections to nuclear war. Like journalist Richard Hornik at Syracuse, Gorbach argues for more news literacy.

This was also the main point of a resolution from AEJMC’s RF&R standing committee that the conference approved. It addressed “threats to the First Amendment” and reaffirmed the association’s commitment “to journalism and its role and function in a free and democratic society.”

I was surprised that the resolution, with its windup of eight Whereas sentences, failed to mention Donald Trump, though his shadow fell over most of the document. The sentence on fake news was especially gossamer. “Whereas repeated allegations of ‘fake news’ underscores a pressing need for a more media-literate electorate” . . . huh? The sentence did get its verb-number corrected to “underscore.” But I had to speak up to agree with the woman who complained about the weakness of this wording. First of all, it’s the actual viral-going existence, not allegations, of fake news that underscores the need for media literacy. And then it’s Trump’s twisted name-calling – hardly deserving of the term allegations – that misapplies the term fake news as his way of dodging and changing the subject.

The high point of the conference for me was getting a bear hug from Mike Sweeney as about 50 members of our division stood in prolonged applause for Mike. He has been matter-of-fact about his cancer, and the daily rest he needed even at the convention, because of treatment. Through all this, he continued working at Ohio University, chaired the division, edited Journalism History, and supervised the ad hoc committee that Frank Fee chaired to map out how our division can take on this publication.

I didn’t have anything like a proper gift for Mike, but I happened to have a historic button that meant a lot to me. So I gave it to Mike. It was a large black button that announced James Meredith’s March Against Fear, Mississippi, 1966. As I said then, Mike is one of the two living heroes I look up to. (The other is our daughter Sarah, 26, whose brain surgery in New York three days later successfully remove half her slow-growing tumor, and didn’t damage the insular cortex she dearly needed to protect to do medical journalism well.)

Our job is to not be afraid, looking to James Meredith and Mike Sweeney for examples.

Now I have a new button that I got in New York, from a friend at the Times. It’s a small white button that says “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.”

Note: This was my initial column as AEJMC History Division head, in the fall issue of Clio Among the Media, the division’s quarterly newsletter.

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After tragic fire in historic synagogue: Shared space or hyper-gentrification?

Story and photos by Doug Cumming

NEW YORK — An abandoned synagogue that for 120 years housed New York’s oldest Eastern European Jewish congregation was not noticed much – until it lit up the sky last May.

The flames that pillared up from Beth Hamedrash Hagadol that Sunday evening, Mother’s Day, caught residents’ attention more than two miles away. People who knew the history of this neglected site in the Lower East Side began calling one another, like relatives when a loved one dies.


Ruins of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue

Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer who had long hoped for the building’s restoration, got such a call, but couldn’t bear to go outside and look. “I had a very good sense I didn’t want to see its demise.”

For another neighborhood preservationist, avoiding the pain took longer.  “I couldn’t go there for about two weeks after the fire,” Holly Kaye, founder of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, told a Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing July 11. “It’s just a tragedy.”

Now the question that neighbors and preservationists are asking is this: If any portion of the looming ruins can be saved, will it be used as part of a shared community space that honors the rich immigrant history of the Lower East Side? Or will it become another iconic gesture embedded in another multi-million-dollar luxury apartment building?

The cathedral-style neo-gothic brick building, whose name means “Great House of Study,” dates back to a Protestant church in the 1850s. Its first rabbi in the 1880s, Jacob Joseph, was the city’s only “chief rabbi,” a European title that didn’t last in New York beyond Rabbi Joseph’s massive funeral in 1902. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s rabbi from 1952 until his death in 2003 was Ephraim Oshrey, a noted Talmudic scholar and Holocaust survivor.


Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer, observes a pew in her home from the original 1850 building.

In her residence several blocks from the ruins at 60 Norfolk St., Sampson points out a piece of the original synagogue, a short wooden pew, that survives in her home. She flips through the pages of The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side, a 1978 book she helped update for a second edition in 2013.

There is a photo of Rabbi Oshrey, a remarkable religious leader who drew many old-time as well as newly arrived Orthodox Jews to the synagogue. Sampson said he played a leading role in saving the building when much of the Seward Park area fell victim to “slum clearance” in the 1960s. Oshrey had the building “landmarked” in 1967, the early years of New York’s powerful Landmark Preservation Commission.

“Rabbi Oshrey, being no fool, did not want to lose his synagogue,” said Sampson, who is also a visiting lecturer at Cornell University. “He understood very well its history and was in a good position to know why it was important.”

The landmark protection of the building became a hindrance to finding a viable commercial future for the synagogue. In 2012, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, the son-in-law of Rabbi Oshrey, filed a hardship application with the LPC for relief from the landmark restrictions. (With no remaining congregation, ownership of the synagogue had been transferred to “Beth Hamedrash Hagadol of New York Restoration, Inc.” for $10, according to a deed dated May 13, 1969, signed by the new owner Aron Mendel. Mendel lives near Rabbi Greenbaum in a Hassidic section of Brooklyn.)


Photos of the synagogue and Rabbi Oshrey in the book The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side

The LPC did not grant hardship relief in 2012.

At the July 11 LPC hearing after the fire, several speakers aired rumors or suspicions that neglect of the building since 2012 was deliberate, since its real estate value has risen by some $6 million since the fire.

Holly Kaye, who had been working for 20 years to save the synagogue, quashed those rumors. She said Rabbi Greenbaum’s request for hardship relief outraged the community, but when she talked to the rabbi about this at that time, he immediately withdrew the application and completely changed his outlook. Since then, she said, he has worked with community groups and potential development partners to save the synagogue.

In fact, Kaye said, a meeting about a preservation plan was just days away, with the Chinese-American Planning Council and other development partners, when the synagogue was ravaged by the fire. To imply that the rabbi had anything to do with the fire “goes against everything that I know,” she said.

Sampson agrees. “While the rabbi is indecisive and did not take the right steps from 2007 to before the fire to secure the building and restore it,” she said, “there’s a distinct difference between saying that and connecting it to the arson. It has absolutely nothing to do with the arson.” The building wasn’t even insured – or insurable, she added.

Rabbi Greenbaum did not respond to email or phone calls.

Whether or not the building could have been more secure or in better shape, the deterioration was so advanced, Sampson had ceased giving tours of the interior. The mold was a liability, she said. There had been other minor fires inside, and young people were frequently breaking in to party. Bernice Cincron, manager of the high-rise residential building next door, said her supervisor would call the rabbi whenever they noticed a break-in.

Police questioned three 14-year-olds suspected of being in the synagogue when the fire started, and released one of the juveniles after charging him with arson.

The LPC disappointed the applicant, who wanted permission to conduct the demolition completely free of landmark restrictions. Instead, the LPC granted the right to remove all unsafe portions in accord with engineering studies by both the LPC and the owner. The engineering studies agree that most of the walls and towers are too unstable to be saved. But once the remains are safe, the owners and development partners are to assess how these might be incorporated in a new development plan.

This gives community activists some hope. The day after the July 11 decision, the online Bowery Boogie published an upbeat, anonymous op-ed by a resident who lives across the street and watched the fire from there.

“I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, and have seen amazing culturally significant buildings transformed into parks, galleries, municipal buildings and other structures,” the resident wrote. “We as a community, if we think creatively, can do that with the space and structure that is salvageable at Beth Hamedrash.”

This is Elissa Sampson’s hope. It’s not so much a matter of how much of the physical building remains, but how it is used. One vision is something like the re-purposed synagogue at 172 Norfolk St., a Reformed German Jewish synagogue older than Beth Hamedrash Hagadol that was saved from the wrecking ball by Spanish artist Angel Orensanz. Today, that brightly painted building is a cultural center, a wedding venue for celebrities, a highlight of Lower East Side tours and rented space for a Reform Jewish shul.


Tour group views Angel Orensanz Center at 176 Norfolk St., several blocks north of the burned synagogue.

The contrasting vision that Sampson fears is hyper-gentrification, embodied by the 16-story glass Blue Tower at 105 Norfolk St., where apartments rent for as much as $18,000 a month and the top floors sell for $7 million, according to Lower East Side Tenement Museum tour guide Laureen Fredella.

“So the real stakes in the Lower East Side are that of belonging in terms of long-term residents, and fostering a sense of belonging in new-time residents,” Sampson says. “It’s across the board, in having equity in the neighborhood in ways that play fair whether it’s access to green space, public space, housing, and having diversity.”

Historically, the area was the most densely populated place on the planet and an incubator of the hope, liberty and faith of American immigrants. Now, Sampson says, it’s one of the most economically stratified neighborhoods in New York City.

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Rounding Manhattan

The tourists sitting in rows on the top deck of the docked Circle Line Manhattan waited to be entertained, and at $41 per adult ticket, $27 for children, it better be good.

“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls,” a brassy New York voice blared over the speakers, beginning the invisible tour guide’s spiel. His intro seemed a little long for not moving out of the diesel fumes while the ship sat lashed to the pier’s parking deck.

“There are some very cool things to see,” the voice said. He promised a lot of history and claimed this tour was different from all the other sightseeing tours. When you’re well out from the city looking back, he said, something very special happens.

Engines kicked in under the steel deck, and presently, the voyage was out on the windy Hudson River. The promised magic took hold.

Women began to look like models in a studio when a fan blows their long hair and they gaze off into a gel light. The sinking sun behind a cloud over the New Jersey side cast down cathedral light beams. The boat curved toward the south over what the tour guide called a “sacred space,” where Captain “Sully” Sullenberger had belly flopped an engine-less jet airliner in 2009 without losing a single passenger. The geese that clogged the engines didn’t fare so well.

The guide could be found in the covered foredeck, an actor named Malachy Murray who said he had played Dracula on Broadway. A mic in one hand, that arm covered in tattoos, he invoked the old days of the world’s greatest shipping port, of the Hamilton-Burr duel in those woods on the New Jersey side, and of the immigrant’s dream back when Ellis Island took in the tempest tossed and wretched refuse. Thick blond hair spilling over his shoulders, he is Irish-American, lives in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York, and when asked about his classic New York accent, quipped, “I worked hard on it for 52 years.”

The two-hour tour circled around the great island of file-cabinet skyscrapers, chugged under the cable-knit East River bridges to Roosevelt Island, and muscled out to a vantage point between the Statue of Liberty and dense-packed lower Manhattan as both lit up. The glow brought a hundred cellphone cameras aloft, offering a perfect contrast to the blue-gray waters below and clouds above the color of a large bruise.

“Is that great, or is that awesome?” Deanna Ezzell of Kansas City, Mo., said to her husband Jason, pointing at the Statue of Liberty they had been inside the day before.

A light rain began falling and the festive mood got even higher when the crowd huddled close together under the shelter behind the foredeck. Most of the wet seats in the open were abandoned. But a young woman out there with a few others laughed under her tightly held umbrella, rib-bent upward in the wind like a flower.

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Tweeting BLM event in Brooklyn

Jul 13

Flatbush and Nostrand, Brooklyn

Rally and parade by BLM chapter, People’s Power Assembly. FTP shouted. C P R on cop cars.

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“Kid Pro Quo” – headline in NY Daily News

A class exercise, after viewing White House news conference of July 11.

Photos and story by Doug CummingCamera crew at Trump Tower

President Trump, who had repeatedly dismissed “the Russia thing” as a hoax and sour grapes, faced dramatic evidence to the contrary yesterday.

His son Donald Trump Jr., under the growing heat of media disclosures of a secret meeting with a Russian lawyer, abruptly released a series of emails showing he met last year with a woman he believed represented a Kremlin effort to help elect his father.

The admission threw such a glaring new light on possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the White House held a press briefing within hours. But deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders kept a tight rein on the event, which was restricted to audio-only and embargoed until it was over.

She began with boiler-plate complaints about other political issues, then opened the floor to questions, which were almost all about the shattering implications of Donald Jr.’s emails. Sanders rhythmically swatted down the questions with a pre-fab position: Only Don Jr. and outside counsel could answer those questions.

Trump window

Display window in Trump Tower

Asked if she was sticking with her statement from the day before that no member of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, Sanders said yes she was.

She did not dispute the scenario that emerged from the emails – that Don Jr., his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in June 2016 met with a woman they believed to be a Russian government representative with damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

And how is that not collusion, a reporter asked. “Once again,” she said, “I know you guys are going to get tired of it today — and not to sound like a broken record — but on all questions related to this matter, I would refer you to Don Jr.’s counsel and outside counsel.”

For 13 months, Trump and his circle have been dismissing concerns that his campaign was involved in Russia’s hacking of emails. Trump even disputes that the Russian government was responsible for such meddling, in the face of his own administration’s intelligence agencies saying there was no doubt about it. The entire matter is under investigation by independent counsel Robert Mueller.

Sanders read a brief statement from President Trump, who said, “My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.”

She said she did not know when the president last spoke with his son.


Tourists rising the escalators at Trump Tower

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A Letter to Our Congressman

Dear Congressman Goodlatte:

Thank you for your email of May 22 responding to our concerns about the American Health Care Act that you support.

Our concerns can be divided into two classes: One, our moral commitment to what is best for the common good and two, our self-interest in what is best for our daughter Sarah. For now, we’ll leave the moral concerns to the good debate about the AHCA that is playing out in various journals and editorial pages. Our comments here are entirely selfish, regarding Sarah.

As I have shared with your Staunton office and in online comments to the White House, Sarah is a self-disciplined, articulate, responsible 26-year-old walking “pre-existing condition.” With bone-cancer presenting in her upper right arm at 15, she has had limb-sparing surgery, lung surgery for metastasis, a successful bone-marrow transplant, and most recently, brain surgery on a slow-growing tumor that causes minor seizures and raises questions about future treatment.

Having aged out of our good insurance coverage through Washington and Lee University (where we, her parents, are both on the faculty), Sarah is getting an extension of the same coverage under COBRA for just over $600 a month. But that will run out by mid-2018. Then she will have to seek coverage from the marketplace exchanges. At that point, the question is which system would be better for her, the ACA or the AHCA. We know the current system would likely present higher premiums and limited choices for her, particularly if Congress doesn’t fix some of the obvious flaws with the law (Obamacare), which incorporates huge political compromises with the big insurance companies. (As you know, the law also reflects GOP demands, even though those compromises didn’t win any votes.) She would need the highest-level of coverage.

You claim that the ACHA would give her the same protections she has under the ACA. At least I think that’s what you mean: “The AHCA would only allow insurance companies to consider health status when assessing premiums if that person has not maintained continuous coverage.”

Sarah graduated with honors from Sewanee. Her parents have graduate degrees. Although we have experienced the absurdity of the theory that there’s such a thing as “consumer-driven health care choices” when dealing with health insurance companies, the three of us can probably guard against discontinuous coverage in Sarah’s case. But will coverage be affordable for her?

The CBO report says it might not: “Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy … would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all.”

What does this mean? David Nather, the health care editor at Axios, explained it this way on May 25: “In the states that get waivers from the ACA’s pricing and benefit rules, people with pre-existing conditions could be priced out of the market. Those states would cover about one sixth of the population.”

I respect that you “firmly believe” in your bill. However, when that belief is so firm that you rush to vote without allowing any committee hearings, without listening to the objections of the associations of doctors, hospitals, nurses and AARP (virtually all groups involved except the insurance companies), and without hearing from the Congressional Budget Office, I wonder if reason and the public good have been squelched.

Please think of Sarah and her parents, your constituents in Virginia’s beautiful 6th District.


Douglas and Elizabeth Cumming

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Lee at Tivoli Circle

“So this monument, lifted far above our daily strife of narrow interests and often narrower passions and misunderstandings, becomes a monument to more than its one great and rightly loved original. It symbolizes our whole South’s better self; the finer part which the world not always sees; unaggressive, but brave, calm, thoughtful, broad-minded, dispassionate, sincere, and, in the din of boisterous error round about it, all too mute.”
N_LeeCircle_LibraryShriners_infrogmation_ed3from George Washington Cable, “The Silent South,” 1884

The distinction of New Orleans is in its cemeteries, from miniature cathedrals “to  a small artificial mountain containing the mausoleum of the Army of the Tennessee, General Albert Sidney Johnston atop, astride his horse and still in command. The great Texas general gazes at Robert E. Lee himself atop his column across town. It is easy to imagine a slightly bemused expression on the faces of these stern Anglo-Saxon commanders as they contemplate between them this their greatest city and yet surely the one place in the South most foreign to them.”
— Walker Percy, “The City of the Dead,” 1984

“To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.”

— New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, 2017

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