Monthly Archives: May 2006

The crystal ball

I’m going to make a prediction. Ten years from now, the Boston Globe will be locally owned. It may be a very different paper from what it is today. It may be smaller, more locally focused, and published entirely or mostly online. But it will be bought, probably by Boston business people who understand the importance of the press and its watchdog role.

Which is exactly what happened in Philadelphia yesterday, where local investors paid a reported $562 million for the city’s two daily papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, and their related holdings.

Given the New York Times Co.’s ownership of the Globe, it was interesting to see Times reporter Katharine Seelye’s take on the deal. Seelye devotes most of her space to handwringing over the possibility that the business interests that now control the Inquirer and the News will interfere with coverage and compromise journalistic independence. The new owners have pledged not to do that, but it’s a real concern.

But given a choice between a rapacious out-of-town chain owner that systematically strips the newsroom in order to drive up profits and local ownership that might occasionally find it irresistable to meddle, I’d take my chances on the latter. Unfortunately, the former is exactly what happened in Philadelphia, where the once-great Inquirer was marginalized by Knight Ridder. Earlier this year, the Inquirer and the Daily News were acquired by the McClatchy chain, which immediately announced its intention to find yet another new buyer.

The Times Co. has been a better steward of the Globe than Knight Ridder was of the Inquirer. But the Times Co. is, nevertheless, a profit-driven, publicly traded company (albeit one whose governing structure leaves it in control of the relatively idealistic Sulzberger family). The Globe’s well-publicized financial problems have turned the paper into a drag on profits. Will the Sulzbergers seek to own the Globe forever? I’d say no — and I’m not alone.

Update: After posting this item, Media Nation reader R.K. called my attention to this excellent commentary on local ownership by former Boston Globe columnist David Warsh, now the proprietor of a Web site called Economic Principals.

Steyn Central responds

Mark Steyn’s assistant, Chantal Benoît, has sent a response to my earlier item. I reproduce it here in full:

Dear Mr Kennedy,

I did not threaten Professor Pullum with legal action. He sent us an e-mail which was somewhat threatening and then another one 15 minutes later declaring “Your fifteen minutes is now up.” And then after I sent a polite reply he accused us of “brazen” “stonewalling”.

I am French-Canadian so I do not always understand the famous English sense of humour but it was apparent the conversation was becoming argumentative with no end of sight and that is a waste of time for all parties. So I concluded as follows:

“It is up to you whether you wish to escalate this any further. We have invited you to pursue it with Maclean’s and have offered Mark’s resignation if they agree with you. But, given the intemperate nature of your e-mails, I think it would be better if you spoke to your lawyer and we will refer him to ours.”

As you know, Maclean’s did not agree with Professor Pullum. Mark credited the Professor for the only thing he “stole” from him — the technical term for the missing definite article, which I discovered via a Welsh link to Professor Pullum’s site.

Everything else Professor Pullum and his co-writer accuse him of “stealing” are points others have made. Two of the three posts Professor Pullum claims were “plagiarized” were never seen by anyone in this office until the Professor brought them to our attention. In the most ridiculous of Professor Pullum’s accusations, he accuses Mark of “stealing” an observation on the meaning of Leonardo da Vinci’s name that Mark first made on the BBC in 1994. His co-author is now claiming Mark steals jokes from Professor Pullum. We’re happy for any scientists to arrange controlled studies with readers and random sampling of side-by-side pieces to test this proposition.

Mark did not, as you put it, “get pissed”, “get wild” or “call a lawyer”. Having worked in Fleet Street, he only gets pissed in the British sense. Instead, he offered to resign from Maclean’s if they thought the Professor’s charges had merit. They did not. But, as you know, Mark writes for a wide variety of publications from The Atlantic Monthly to Hawke’s Bay Today in New Zealand. You are a widely respected media commentator. If you wish to take up the Professor and his co-author’s accusations with the publisher and editor-in-chief of any of those newspapers and magazines and they agree with the Professor, then Mark will resign from each of those publications, too. For an e-mail or two, you can have the satisfaction of ridding the world of a notorious right-wing hack.

With best wishes to you, and thank you for your profile, about which we still receive many amusing letters.

As ever,

Chantal Benoît
Assistant to Mark Steyn

If either Geoffrey Pullum or Mark Liberman wishes to respond, Media Nation will be happy to add that as well.

Update: Jeff wonders whether I believe Chantal Benoît really exists — or, for that matter, Tiffany Cole, another Steyn assistant, with whom I exchanged e-mails in 2004. Answer: No, probably not, although it hadn’t previously occurred to me that Steyn was lame enough to engage in such a ruse. But if he actually does employ a Chantal Benoît, I hope it’s this one.

Update II: OK, that was too flip. I’ve done some poking around with Switchboard and Intelius and can report that there’s a Tiffany Cole in the same New Hampshire town where Steyn lives, as well as several people named C. Benoit who are nearby. Funny, though. Two years ago a couple of bloggers who call themselves the Brothers Judd defended Steyn, and poked fun at me, for supposedly being naive enough to believe in the existence of Cole and Benoît. So, for what it’s worth, this cuts both ways.

Mark Steyn and the “P”-word

Fact-challenged conservative columnist (make that the fact-challenged conservative columnist) Mark Steyn has been accused of plagiarism or something like it for a takedown he wrote of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

The case against Steyn is made by Language Log‘s Mark Liberman, who says the style and content were lifted from two posts about Brown’s crimes against the English language that had been written by his co-blogger, Geoffrey Pullum, in 2004 and 2005. Liberman offers links and analysis — everything you need to come to your own conclusion.

A lot of it has to do with Pullum’s — and Steyn’s — bemusement at Brown’s leaving out the “the” in describing what people do, as in, “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” This construction is so common in journalism that it may not be immediately recognizable as wrong (or at least weird), but, in fact, the sentence ought to be preceded with a “the.”

I wish the case against Steyn were clearer. The problem is that Steyn actually cites Pullum even as he apparently rips him off. This isn’t classic plagiarism; rather, it strikes me as inadequate attribution. Steyn’s not-quite-there crediting of Pullum is either clumsy or disingenuous. Take your pick.

Liberman makes some good points about the different shades of plagiarism and its ilk here; he also reports that Steyn’s assistant has threatened him with legal action. Nice! More on those threats here. It seems that Steyn’s claiming he’d never heard of Language Log until he’d been attacked.

File this under: “How Mark Steyn Got Pissed, Got Wild and Got a Lawyer.”

The next Globe ombudsman

To get an idea of just how short his stint was, take a look at what it says next to his farewell post: “Richard Chacón is the new Globe Ombudsman.” Yes, and the old and soon-to-be-former ombudsman, too.

Ah, Richard, we hardly knew ye. Actually, that’s not quite true. Chacón had been a Globe staffer for a dozen years, covering Latin America, among other beats, and later serving as the deputy foreign editor. But, as with his predecessor, Christine Chinlund, Chacón never seemed to get untracked as ombudsman, striking such a polite, inoffensive tone that it was hard to remember what he had written five minutes after you’d read it.

Even that may not have been good enough for the higher-ups. Last fall, he wrote what might have been his only tough piece, on the Globe’s business partnership with the Red Sox. Among other things, he criticized top Globe business-side executives for accepting World Series rings. Two weeks later, Chacón backed down.

On Saturday, Chacón hinted at how unpleasant life can be as the Globe’s in-house critic: “My year as ombudsman has been one of the most memorable in my career (note: I didn’t say ‘fun’).”

Given the Globe’s current budget woes, as well as the fact that editor Martin Baron and publisher Richard Gilman have in the past at least talked about doing away with the ombudsman’s position, it’s possible that Chacón’s departure may mark the end of an era. But assuming Baron and Gilman understand the importance of having an ongoing conversation with their readers, I’ll repeat an argument I’ve made previously: the ombudsman should be a respected outsider who serves for no more than two or three years.

That’s the way the Washington Post has always done it. That’s the way the New York Times has done it since creating the “public editor” position following the Jayson Blair/Howell Raines meltdown of several years ago. Indeed, check out Byron Calame’s piece in yesterday’s Times, on a scoop that turned out too good to be true. The estimable Jack Shafer recently whacked Calame for his “dreadful news sense.” Maybe so, but Calame’s independence and stature — he is a retired deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal — allow him to take on sensitive subjects without worrying about how management will react.

Even though several Globe ombudsmen have done an excellent job — including, most recently, my former Boston Phoenix colleague Mark Jurkowitz, who held the position in the mid-1990s — overall, it’s just too personally difficult to whack the people you work with, especially when you expect to return to the newsroom after your term is over.

Chacón, to his credit, did start a blog, which is an ideal way for news organizations to converse with readers. He never fully exploited it, but that’s no reason to give up on it. At a time when circulation is declining and public distrust of the media is growing, this is a moment to expand the ombudsman’s role — and to give that position the independence and voice that it needs.

Update: Chacón tells Mark that he’s going to work for Deval Patrick.

Stumbling toward the truth

It’s been a little more than a week since USA Today reported that the nation’s three largest phone companies turned over their customers’ calling records to the National Security Agency. Two of those companies, BellSouth and Verizon, have issued denials; now BellSouth is demanding a retraction. Is USAT’s story in tatters?

The answer, I think, is no. I suspect that USAT got much of the story right, some of it wrong, and lacks the wit and the expertise to defend itself properly. (And yes, this is different from what I said yesterday.) The Washington Post’s Arshad Mohammed, in reporting on the latest from BellSouth, offers this today:

“The story came out in USA Today … and then all this dancing starting, which doesn’t give people reason to believe it wasn’t true,” said Mary J. Culnan, a professor at Bentley College and a privacy expert. “These kind of carefully worded press releases where people just don’t flat out say ‘We didn’t do it’ — I think that’s why people continue to be suspicious.”

That sounds about right.

Perhaps USAT’s best defense is that its exclusive of last Thursday wasn’t all that exclusive. On Dec. 24, the New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau and James Risen — the same reporters who had broken the warrantless-wiretapping story — weighed in with a meaty report that pretty much had everything USAT had, missing only the names of the phone companies. The headline: “Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report.” Lichtblau and Risen wrote:

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said….

What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation….

Officials in the government and the telecommunications industry who have knowledge of parts of the program say the N.S.A. has sought to analyze communications patterns to glean clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages. Calls to and from Afghanistan, for instance, are known to have been of particular interest to the N.S.A. since the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.

This so-called “pattern analysis” on calls within the United States would, in many circumstances, require a court warrant if the government wanted to trace who calls whom.

To my knowledge, no one has demanded that this story be retracted. You may not have bothered to read the Times on Christmas Eve, but, as you can see, it was one of the pieces for which Lichtblau and Risen won a Pulitzer. So go back and read their story now.

A lull in the USA Today story

It looks like we’ve hit a lull in the possible unraveling of the USA Today story over whether the nation’s three largest phone companies gave their customers’ calling records to the National Security Agency. Here are a few newish developments:

  • The New York Times today reports that the NSA may really have been after long-distance records, not local calls, which could explain the responses put forth by the phone companies — including the denials issued earlier this week by BellSouth and Verizon. Comment: If you’re trying to figure out from this whether USAT got it right, good luck. The Times report appears to prop up the gist of the USAT story, but the details are different from what USAT reported last week.
  • Yesterday, as at least one Media Nation reader has noted, the liberal site Think Progress posted an item reporting that, on May 5, President Bush signed a memorandum that “allows the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, to authorize a company to conceal activities related to national security.” The item continues: “There is no evidence that this executive order has been used by John Negroponte with respect to the telcos. Of course, if it was used, we wouldn’t know about it.” Bolstering that is a story posted on News.com by Declan McCullagh that ominously begins: “An AT&T attorney indicated in federal court on Wednesday that the Bush administration may have provided legal authorization for the telecommunications company to open its network to the National Security Agency.” Read the whole thing. Comment: How does this relate to the USA Today story? Don’t know. But clearly it’s more evidence that the White House is contemptuous of our civil liberties and the public’s right to know what its government is doing.
  • Josh Marshall has posted several times on this, and has flatly stated that BellSouth and Verizon are “lying.” How does he know? “Common sense” and a “hunch.” Well, now. I like Josh’s stuff, but I think he ought to do better than that. He also points to a commentary by Vaughn Ververs, who thinks the USAT story might be “slipping away.” Marshall disagrees with Ververs. Comment: I think Ververs might be right, but I’m not ready to walk away yet. But USAT needs to undertake a serious effort to rehabilitate its story. If it can.

There ought to be a law

This afternoon I paid a visit to my friendly Verizon Wireless store, which may or may not be providing my calling information to the National Security Agency. I had come to upgrade to a Treo 650 — an expensive proposition somewhat ameliorated by the fact that I had $100 coming toward a new phone.

Obstacle #1: The saleswoman told me that I had to choose between two Internet plans. I think they were $25 a month and $45 a month. I told her I didn’t want an Internet plan — that I intended to use my Treo as a phone and organizer, not to receive e-mail or access the Web. She seemed mildly flummoxed, but I cleared the hurdle.

Obstacle #2: The sale was nearly complete when I sought assurance that we wouldn’t be paying any more per month than we are now. No, I was told — except, of course, for the $5 a month mandatory fee that comes with my having chosen “pay as you go” Internet access. I repeated that I didn’t want any Internet access. The answer: Not an option. My answer: No sale.

I am not a Luddite. In fact, I had intended at some point to check out the possibility of adding WiFi to the Treo for occasional Internet access, à la carte or free. But I wasn’t going to pay $60 a year for something I don’t want or need. Why can’t I choose the features I want? Ridiculous.

Mulvoy on Winship’s Globe

Tom Mulvoy, a retired Boston Globe managing editor, has responded to Christopher Lydon’s essay that appears in the current CommonWealth Magazine. (Here is my earlier post on Lydon’s piece.) It makes for excellent reading, especially for those of us old enough to remember Tom Winship’s Boston Globe.

And bloggers take note: CommonWealth has added a feature making it possible to generate an open link to every feature on the Web site, thus bypassing the free but occasionally frustrating registration procedure. Look for “Link to this page registration-free,” in the upper right. (Disclosure: Yes, I’m a CommonWealth contributor.)

Colbert rapport

James Wood, writing in what appears to be a freely available essay on The New Republic’s Web site, shows that he gets Stephen Colbert.

I disagree with Wood’s observation that the transcript of Colbert’s appearance at White House Correspondents Association Dinner is better than the video — I thought actually watching Colbert was what brought his words to life. But Wood is dead-on in observing that humor was just one of the things that Colbert was up to that night, and certainly not the most important thing. He writes:

Obviously enough, this is designed not to amuse, but to wound, to goad, to irritate. It is not comedy; the discourse has moved location, from the funhouse to the church, and it has become preachy and a little earnest. We are in the realm of the blogosphere. Again and again, Colbert chides the MSM in much the way that the alternative press does: “John McCain, John McCain, what a maverick! Somebody find out what fork he used on his salad, because I guarantee you, it wasn’t a salad fork. This guy could have used a spoon! There’s no predicting him.” Actually, this last jibe is pretty funny, and it neatly pops both John McCain’s ballooning self-regard and the tedious reverence of the establishment media.

And, pleasingly, the MSM have responded with delicious displays of their own inability to read.

Wood follows that up with a nice poke at Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (see this and this). Good stuff.