Monthly Archives: January 2007

A lot more than inconvenient

In what reads like a culture-war parody, the Washington Post reports that a father who’s an evangelical Christian has intimidated public-school officials into not showing Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

What really makes this story special is that the father, Frosty Hardison, who lives in the Seattle suburbs, actually accepts the reality of global warming — with a twist. The Post’s Blaine Harden writes, “The 43-year-old computer consultant is an evangelical Christian who says he believes that a warming planet is ‘one of the signs’ of Jesus Christ’s imminent return for Judgment Day.”

So even though Hardison refers to “An Inconvenient Truth” as “that propagandist Al Gore video,” it appears his problem isn’t with Gore’s findings (which amount to nothing more than the consensus scientific view) but, rather, that Gore thinks we should do something.

Yet Hardison won. The screening was canceled, and the teacher has been told she’ll receive a disciplinary letter for not seeking permission to show a “controversial” film.

I’m not familiar with Hardison’s community, Federal Way, Wash., but it’s probably safe to say that it has more in common with Cambridge and Ann Arbor, Mich., than it does with Lubbock, Texas, or Tupelo, Miss. It is incredible — and incredibly disturbing — that school officials would cave in to the idiosyncratic religious views of a few outspoken parents.

The public schools’ mission, after all, is to teach science. If that tiny minority of scientists who deny the existence of human-caused global warming wants to speak up, well fine. It’s possible that they’re right. But Hardison’s complaint has nothing to do with science. If he can’t handle reality-based education, let him home-school his seven kids.

By the way, I know I’m late to this. Check out Google Blogsearch for what others have been saying.

Department of self-promotion

I’ll be on “The Paul Sullivan Show,” on WBZ Radio (AM 1030), tonight at 9 to talk about Wolf Blitzer’s question to Dick Cheney about right-wing criticism over the pregnancy of his lesbian daughter, Mary Cheney.

Also, in the new issue of CommonWealth Magazine I’ve got a profile of Joe Heisler and Chris Lovett of Boston Neighborhood Network, who specialize in grassroots-level local journalism.

Defining the local vision

Following news earlier this week that the Boston Globe is closing its remaining foreign bureaus, I received a challenge from inside the Globe newsroom: to define a positive future for major regional papers like the Globe beyond the mostly local/mostly online formula that I and many other media observers have been espousing.

In a sense, of course, it’s an impossible challenge. Figuring out that future is something those of us who care about the news will be doing for the rest of our careers. There’s obviously no easy answer. And the first priority, of necessity, is fairly uninspiring. The Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald and others in their weight class must shrink their way to financial viability without damaging the local coverage that is their principal appeal.

Beyond that? The Los Angeles Times, amid turmoil that may end in its being sold to local investors, has announced an initiative to transform itself into a 24-hour-a-day news operation, with latimes.com as its main vehicle and the print edition as a secondary outlet. (Romenesko wraps up the coverage here.)

That’s exactly what the Wall Street Journal is doing with its recently shrunk print edition, too. WSJ.com will be the primary news outlet, and the print edition will feature a lot of analysis.

The Globe is doing more than some readers might realize. It’s got a ton of staff blogs, allowing people to go deep in certain areas that they really care about. It’s done some innovative Web journalism, such as this mashup combining campaign-contribution data from the gubernatorial race with a Google map. Its multimedia specials are a model for innovative online journalism.

But the reason I say the Globe is doing more than some might realize is that the ethos coming out of Morrissey Boulevard continues to be print first, online second. Even if that’s not the way editor Marty Baron and company are thinking, that’s the message we’re getting.

Then, too, the Globe’s Web site(s) is/are still too hard to navigate. Boston.com may no longer be separate from the Globe Online, but they feel separate. Papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have done a better job of presenting an integrated face.

Now here’s the hard part. The key to a successful local strategy is not to use reduced national and international ambitions as nothing more than an excuse to save money. Ultimately the Globe and papers like it are going to have to reinvest in local coverage and do more than they are now. Cost-cutting may be necessary, but at some point they’ve got to start growing again.

Innovations in citizen journalism such as reader blogs and pro-am collaborations are well worth trying. But nothing brings more value to news consumers than skilled reporters — reporters who can write stories, shoot photos and video, record sound, blog, and get it all up onto the Web with minimal adult supervision. And that’s not going to happen until someone gets the economic model right.

Let’s not forget, too, how much better technology is going to get. One of the problems with the shift to online is that computers are still not a particularly satisfying way to read. That will change. I don’t want news on my cell phone, thank you very much, but I might very well want it on an Apple iPhone, with its ultra-high-resolution (so they say) screen and always-there wireless connection.

What so much of the current news meltdown is all about is that the old model is collapsing at a time when we can barely glimpse the new model. That will change, but it’s not going to happen quickly.

Coming clean on what exactly?

Scott Allen Miller demands that Gov. Deval Patrick do the right thing in handling a scandal that he can’t tell us about but that he insists is about to break. I’m not making this up. The headline is “Echoes of Cellucci?” Hmmm … the ponies? Credit-card debt? Bad Robert De Niro impersonations?

Now, don’t get me wrong. It might be true. But sometimes you should just leave the meatloaf in the oven until the dinger goes off.

Update: Scotto confirms my suspicion that he was referring to this. Good grief. Wake me when it’s over.

Globe to close foreign bureaus

The Boston Globe announced some sad news today: The paper is closing its foreign bureaus. Media Nation received word a little while ago, but Romenesko has already posted both this Globe item and a memo to the staff by editor Marty Baron, the text of which appears below:

To the staff:

As you know, this is a period of hard choices for us. Today I am advising you of one of them: We will no longer maintain a network of foreign bureaus.

We currently have four superb, supremely dedicated colleagues in three bureaus overseas. They will be given the opportunity to return here for other positions, and the bureaus will be closed.

Continuing to bear the expense of our foreign bureaus would have required us to reduce staffing by a dozen or so positions beyond those already announced. We concluded that it would be unwise to meet the newsroom’s financial targets by making additional staff reductions.

We will continue to send reporters and photographers abroad on special projects and selected major events. Our budget for this year sets aside money for that purpose.

Foreign coverage has been a point of special pride in our newsroom, ever since the Globe established its first overseas bureau in the mid-1970s. Since then, the Globe has asked its foreign correspondents to provide stories of distinction, and they have always delivered. Often, our colleagues have put their own lives at risk in the important, noble task of bringing the world closer to our readers. They are fiercely committed to their work, and they have been brave beyond measure.

Many other regional newspapers, some larger than ours, have taken similar steps in recent years. Our decision came only after a careful review by the publisher of various options that would allow us to stay within budget. All along, a guiding principle was to secure the resources required for local coverage and for journalism that has the most direct impact on our readers.

We remain positioned for another year of outstanding journalism, with robust local coverage, ambitious plans for the presidential campaign, and continued strength in sports, arts, business, features, Washington coverage, and many other areas. You can also expect even more aggressive initiatives online.

In coming weeks, I will be talking with you more about all of this.

Marty

Affected are Thannasis Cambanis and Anne Bernard, who cover the Middle East from the Jerusalem bureau; Indira Lakshmanan, based in Bogotá, Colombia; and Colin Nickerson, based in Berlin.

That this was inevitable makes it no less depressing. As many media observers, including me, have been writing for some time, it no longer makes sense for regional papers like the Globe to cover international news in any sort of comprehensive way — not when the New York Times, the BBC et al. are just a click away.

The Globe’s foreign coverage has been distinguished. Retired editor Matt Storin once told me that his philosophy was for the Globe to be like the New Yorker — to cover the news, but also to seek out the offbeat stories that the Times and the Washington Post weren’t covering. In recent years you could see that in John Donnelly’s outstanding reportage from Africa (Donnelly moved to back to Washington last year). And only yesterday, the Globe fronted a fine Lakshmanan piece on Panama City’s old quarter.

The Globe’s Elizabeth Neuffer — best known for her work in the former Yugoslavia — was one of the first reporters to die covering the war in Iraq. In 2002, Baron flew to Israel after Anthony Shadid — then with the Globe, now with the Post — was shot in Ramallah.

Not too many years ago, folks at regional papers like the Globe wanted to compete with the national media by having their own people in Washington, across the country and overseas. Unfortunately, the new media landscape puts a premium on local, local, local.

But that doesn’t mean something hasn’t been lost. Take a look at these special reports on the Globe’s Web site. Baron says the Globe’s foreign coverage won’t disappear entirely. But it’s not going to be the same. Not even close.

Update: Michael Gee disagrees with my assessment, and backs it up with some sharp observations about his years at the Herald. Unfortunately, he lumps Media Nation in with … Jack Welch!

Out of bounds

If only I’d been taking notes. I post this in the hope that some sharp-eared Media Nation reader will be able to expand on what I heard yesterday while parking at Target to run a few errands.

Howie Carr was hosting his WRKO Radio (AM 680) show, and the topic was the killing at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School. Some of Carr’s observations were sensible. You do have to wonder what the parents of suspect John Odgren were thinking as he went off to school wearing a Columbine-style trench coat.

But then a caller opined that Odgren ought to be executed. I’m not making this up. Odgren is 16 years old and living with Asperger’s syndrome, a serious mental disorder, and some know-nothing know-it-all was ready to strap him into an electric chair as an example to others. I believe the caller also described Odgren as “an animal,” and “not a human being.”

And Carr agreed.

Then, within moments, Carr sounded like he was ready to change his tune. Those of us who’ve been reading and listening to Carr for years know there’s a good Howie and a bad Howie, and that occasionally he’ll remember that he’s supposed to be the adult in these exchanges. Or perhaps the producer was screaming in his ear, relaying orders from Entercom to inject a little sanity into the proceedings.

But alas. All Carr did was point out that you can’t reinstate the death penalty and use it on someone after the fact — a state of affairs he lamented. He further observed, bitterly, that Odgren would probably serve just 11 years or so, unless someone kills him in prison.

Maria Cramer reports in the Globe today that Odgren has a troubled history — so troubled that you have to wonder why he was allowed such freedom of movement at Lincoln-Sudbury. If he had been more closely supervised, James Alenson might be alive today.

There are plenty of questions about the way Odgren’s disability was managed. But for some mouth-breathing talk-radio caller to demand his execution — and for the host actually to agree — is so reprehensible and irresponsible that Carr, on reflection, would be deeply ashamed if he were capable of such an emotion.

She’s in

Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for president. Since I think I was the last person in America who thought she might not run, I just wanted to acknowledge that.

So now it’s Hillary versus Barack Obama versus John Edwards, with Bill Richardson, Tom Vilsack, Chris Dodd (!) and who knows who else in the mix. Not that this is a prediction, but this would be a fine moment for John Kerry to pull out, don’t you think?

Although Jon Keller, hardly a Kerry fan, won’t rule him out. Nor should I, given how far off I was here.

Jack Welch’s local vision

Retired GE chairman Jack Welch has glimpsed the future of metropolitan newspapers like the Globe, even if he’s not the guy I want to see implementing that vision.

“You’ve got to make the newsroom not control the world,” Welch said on CNBC, according to this account in the Herald by Jesse Noyes. “I’m not sure local papers need to cover Iraq, need to cover local events. They can be real local papers. And franchise, purchase from people very willing to sell to you their wire services that will give you coverage.”

That still sounds horrifying to my aging, nostalgia-attuned ears. But he’s right. Now that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC and the like are just a click away, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald et al. have little stake in covering national and international news except when there’s a local angle.

The Pentagon’s spies

For some time now, the ACLU has been trying to determine the extent to which the Pentagon has spied on antiwar groups. For instance, in my annual Muzzle Awards roundup for the Phoenix last Fourth of July, I noted that ACLU chapters in Maine and Rhode Island had joined efforts to force the Defense Department to turn over records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Well, yesterday we learned a whole lot more. Bloomberg reports that 2,821 organizations or events involving Americans were logged into a database of terrorist threats, known as TALON, as of December 2005 — and that 186 of those involved antiwar protests organized by the Quakers and other groups.

The ACLU observes:

The Pentagon’s misuse of the TALON database must be viewed in the wider context of increased government surveillance of U.S. citizens. With the help of phone companies, the National Security Agency has been tapping phones and reading email without a warrant. The FBI has gathered information about peace activists, and recruited confidential informants inside groups like Greenpeace and PETA. All of these actions are part of a broad pattern of the executive branch using “national security” as an excuse for encroaching on the privacy and free speech rights of Americans without adequate oversight.

You can read the ACLU press release here, and the full report (in PDF) here.

Ironically, the ACLU news comes at the same time that we learn the Bush administration has worked out a deal with the FISA court over the NSA’s wiretapping program. Don’t you feel better?