Monthly Archives: November 2010

On the road again

I’ll be heading to New Haven later this morning for my first reporting trip since my accident. I’m covering an event on education reform organized by the New Haven Independent and starring No Child Left Behind skeptic Diane Ravitch, and I’ve got two interviews lined up this afternoon. Normality is creeping back.

WikiLeaks and the media’s responsibility

Julian Assange

The latest WikiLeaks document dump gives us all much to think about. Unlike the earlier materials, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest revelations might actually make it more difficult for the United States to conduct foreign policy.

Is the world safer or less safe today now that we know King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has urged the U.S. to take out Iran’s nuclear-weapons-in-the-making? Or doesn’t it matter? And would the documents be seen in a different light if the New York Times, the Guardian et al. had done nothing and let WikiLeaks release them on its own accord?

Like most journalists, I want to see as much information out there as possible. When government officials talk about the need for secrecy, I’m naturally suspicious. Yet as Timothy Garton Ash observes in the Guardian, secrecy is surely a tool that the State Department needs to use on occasion. He writes:

How can diplomacy be conducted under these conditions? A State Department spokesman is surely right to say that the revelations are “going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world.” The conduct of government is already hampered by fear of leaks. An academic friend of mine who worked in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice told me that he had once suggested writing a memo posing fundamental questions about U.S. policy in Iraq. “Don’t even think of it,” he was warned — because it would be sure to appear in the next day’s New York Times.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., sounds as though he wants WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be tried and executed. I think we can safely dismiss rants like that while still wondering whether there was a legitimate need to keep these matters secret.

I have not yet come up with an answer to that question. What I do know is that information technology now makes it possible for a group like WikiLeaks to dump far more dangerous documents than these into the public realm. Say what you will about traditional news organizations like the Times, but at least they give the government an opportunity to make a case as to why such documents shouldn’t be released.

One thing’s for sure: if the government is serious about keeping its secrets, it needs to do a much better job of protecting them.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

What drove James DiPaola to suicide?

The trouble that Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola was in before he committed suicide seemed — well, if not trivial, then certainly manageable.

He considered, then walked away from, a sleazy but perfectly legal scheme that would have allowed him to collect his $98,500 pension and his $123,000 salary simultaneously. And he may have been playing it fast and loose with campaign funds.

There is a possibility that much worse was about to come out, and he couldn’t bear the thought of disgrace and prison. But it could well be that depression was responsible both for his misdeeds and for his suicide. Killing himself was such an extreme reaction that it doesn’t seem likely the thought had never occurred to him before last week.

Understanding the legal challenge to health care

I’d be curious to know whether anyone has a good link explaining the reasoning behind the legal challenges to the federal health-care law. Every story I’ve seen — including this one, from the New York Times — reports that it might be unconstitutional to require people to buy medical insurance. But I haven’t seen anything that places it in context.

Here’s what I don’t understand. The courts clearly have no constitutional problem if the states impose such a requirement. Most states, after all, mandate that their residents buy auto insurance if they wish to drive. And Massachusetts — upon which the federal health-care law is based — requires that everyone buy medical insurance.

Moreover, under the 14th Amendment, states may not deprive their residents of liberties that they enjoy under the U.S. Constitution. If anyone has used the 14th Amendment to challenge state insurance mandates, I’m not aware of it.

If you’ve seen something that answers these questions, please post a link in the comments.

Keeping the “public” in public radio

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that NPR and public radio stations shouldn’t walk away from government funding, even if they don’t need it. For one thing, it would hand the right a victory in the culture wars. For another, it would set a dangerous precedent for public television, which is far more dependent on public money.

The importance of being Paul La Camera

Paul La Camera

Congratulations to Paul La Camera, who last week announced that he’ll retire as general manager of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) at the end of the year.

“I’m going to be 68 next month, and I think that’s an appropriate expiration date for someone to be running a dynamic contemporary media entity that increasingly has to surge into the digital world,” La Camera was quoted as saying in a story by WBUR’s Steve Brown. La Camera added that he plans to continue in an “ambassadorial role” for the station.

La Camera, the longtime head of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), took the helm of WBUR in 2005, as the Boston University-licensed public radio station was just beginning to recover from the financial problems that had ended the reign of his predecessor, Jane Christo.

The imperious Christo was a much-admired, much-detested executive who transformed ‘BUR into one of the best public radio stations in the country. But what La Camera did was at least as important: he calmed the waters, restored financial stability and expanded the station’s local presence.

“He was really the guy who brought stability back to the place,” Scott Fybush, editor of Northeast Radio Watch, told the Boston Globe’s Johnny Diaz.

In 2006 I profiled La Camera for CommonWealth Magazine. Noting that he had already retired once (from WCVB), he told me: “You can probably count on the fact that I won’t be here for 33 1/2 years. I haven’t given much thought to when I’m next going to retire. But whenever that time comes, I hope I’m going to be more successful at it than I was the last time.”

(Note: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH-TV/Channel 2 and an occasional unpaid contributor to WGBH Radio/89.7 FM, which earlier this year was retooled into a news and public-affairs outlet that competes with WBUR.)

La Camera is a great broadcasting executive as well as a good guy, and though he’s not going away, his day-to-day presence will be missed.

Globe publishes spiked Wasserman cartoon

Though it doesn’t seem to have made its way onto Boston.com yet, Boston Globe cartoonist Dan Wasserman’s poke at Bank of America and the Museum of Fine Arts — spiked last Sunday — is in today’s Globe, as he said it would be. It never should have been held in the first place, but there you have it.

A First Amendment hero-in-the-making

Michael Morisy

Last night I met a fledgling First Amendment hero: Michael Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock, a site where he posts public documents he obtains from filing public-records requests.

Morisy, as you might have heard, may be in trouble because of how Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration handled his request for records about how much money has been spent at various Massachusetts businesses under the federal food-stamp program.

The state complied with Morisy’s request. Then, in a classic CYA move, the administration — realizing after the fact that the release may have violated federal law — sent a letter to Morisy informing him he could be subject to a possible fine or imprisonment if he doesn’t take the information down. It was a ridiculous threat, and Morisy has refused to comply. The courts have consistently ruled that, under the First Amendment, the onus for keeping private records private is entirely on the keeper of those records, not on those who would publish them.

Nor is the privacy of any food-stamp recipients at risk. The records published by MuckRock, according to this Boston Globe story by Noah Bierman, do not identify any recipients.

It doesn’t seem likely that Morisy and his tech guy, Mitchell Kotler, are in any real trouble. In a follow-up in the Globe by Jonathan Saltzman, we learn that the Patrick administration issued a second CYA to cover its first CYA, assuring one and all that it never, ever intended to threaten MuckRock. Oh, no, of course not.

“At this point, I think the legal issue will blow over,” Morisy tells Chris Faraone of the Boston Phoenix. “But it’s still interesting, because all of a sudden people got very interested in what we’re doing.”

Still, you never know. Last night Morisy attended a panel discussion I moderated at Boston University on “Legal Liability in the Age of WikiLeaks,” with local First Amendment lawyers Jon Albano and Rob Bertsche. Bertsche, who has agreed to represent Morisy for free, made it clear that he doesn’t consider MuckRock to be out of the woods just yet.

Given the public attention this issue has received, I think Gov. Deval Patrick himself should announce that Morisy and Kotler are in no danger for posting records they received as a result of making a legitimate public-records request. Patrick should apologize while he’s at it.

Photo is from Morisy’s LinkedIn profile.

Please join us for a panel on WikiLeaks and the law

This Wednesday I’ll be moderating a conversation on “Legal Liability in the Age of Wikileaks,” starring two terrific First Amendment lawyers — Rob Bertsche of Prince Lobel and Jon Albano of Bingham McCutcheon.

The program is being sponsored by Hacks/Hackers of Boston, which brings together journalists and technology folks. We’ll schmooze from 6 to 7 p.m. and get down to business from 7 to 8. I hope you’ll join us.

The session will be held in the student lounge at Boston University’s College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Ave. For more information, just click here.