Monthly Archives: January 2012

Fighting for our online freedom of speech

As I’m sure you already know, Wikipedia’s English-language site is the most prominent to go dark today in protest of two bills being considered by Congress to crack down on copyright infringement.

The bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), in the Senate, are being pushed by major media corporations. Copyright infringement is a real problem, of course, but these bills would place the interests of copyright-holders above all other considerations. Save the Internet puts it this way:

If they are passed, corporations (with the help of the courts) will become the arbiters of what is and isn’t lawful online activity, with millions of Internet users swept in their nets as collateral damage.

Earlier item here. Note that the Big Brother poster I used to illustrate the item is missing. I wonder if that has anything to do with the protest.

And be sure to have a look at Google.

John Sununu’s complicated alliances

John Sununu

Boston Globe editorial-page editor Peter Canellos and I recently exchanged some emails over Globe op-ed columnist John Sununu’s lobbying work on behalf of Akin Gump. I ended up choosing not to write about Sununu because I was satisfied that Sununu’s non-disclosure in his columns, though potentially problematic, did not rise to the level of unethical behavior. It was also clear that I’d need to do a lot more research than I had time for in order to put some flesh on the bones.

Today Media Matters, a prominent liberal media-watch organization, weighs in. And I don’t regret my decision. Oliver Willis and Joe Strupp have really done their homework, only to find that the whole situation is fairly ambiguous. It looks like they got excited about the chance to write that the former New Hampshire senator was using the Globe to further his interests in such controversial practices as hydrofracking only to find that Sununu’s ties to Akin Gump are rather tangential.

One thing Willis and Strupp don’t mention is that Sununu has used his column to carry water for Mitt Romney on several occasions, including the run-up to the New Hampshire primary. This one, for instance, couldn’t be any more favorable if one of Romney’s kids had written it. Sununu did not endorse anyone, but his column dutifully noted that his father, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, had endorsed Romney.

There is a larger question here. Why do news organizations use political partisans and lobbyists — and people who are both — to write opinion pieces for them? That, to me, is the real issue. I find nothing in Sununu’s columns that are insightful or fresh enough to make me think he earned a piece of the valuable real estate he commands. He’s there because of who he is, not because of what he has to say.

I don’t mind strong opinions. Frankly, I’d like to see more of them in the Globe. But if I want those opinions from a politician-turned-lobbyist, I can always turn on cable TV.

Richard Land’s wicked gay anti-Romney analogy

Anti-Mitt Romney evangelical leader Richard Land, who doesn’t think the Republican frontrunner is enough of a hardliner when it comes to hating the gays, offered a very curious analogy last week when interviewed about his attempts to find an alternative. Land told NPR:

Before we marry the guy next door, don’t you think we ought to have a fling with a tall dark stranger and see if he can support us in the manner to which we’d like to be accustomed? And if he can’t, we can always marry the steady beau who lives next door.

Well, yes you can, Dr. Land. But first you’ll have to move to Massachusetts.

Worcester paper abandons printing presses, too

It’s become a flood. The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester has announced it’s shutting down most of its printing operations, costing 64 employees their jobs. The T&G will be printed at the Boston Globe. Both papers are owned by the New York Times Co.

The announcement comes within days of the Boston Herald’s deal with the Globe, and with the New Haven Register’s decision to shut down its presses and shift its printing operations to the Hartford Courant.

Total job loss: 222. Absolutely necessary. And a tragedy for the workers, their families and the local economy.

The boys (and girls) on the bus, 2012-style

Curtis Wilkie

My friend and former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein has written a terrific piece on the media horde that follows the presidential candidates from stop to stop. Bernstein discovers that the number of reporters on the campaign trail may be as great as it ever was, but that the composition and focus have changed considerably.

Unlike campaigns past, Bernstein writes, local newspapers are barely represented. The New York Times and the Washington Post are on the case, of course. But even the Boston Globe, which has made a significant effort to cover the 2012 race, can’t match what it did in 1988, when it actually established a bureau in Des Moines the year that Michael Dukakis won the Democratic nomination.

So who’s taken their place? Niche organizations devoted to covering politics such as the Huffington Post, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Slate, Salon, Real Clear Politics and the cable news operations. Bernstein argues that the result is coverage that is more insular and insidery than ever, as news aimed at a general audience has been replaced with news for political junkies.

I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the state of political journalism today can be dreadful at times, but it was pretty bad back in the day, too. Inside baseball has always been the stock in trade. Bernstein pays homage to Timothy Crouse’s classic treatment of the 1972 campaign-trail press corps, “The Boys on the Bus.” One of Crouse’s key observations was that few people on that bus dared go off the reservation and report stories no one else was reporting for fear that their editors squawk.

One of the most fun stories I reported during my own years at the Phoenix was the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary campaign, when George W. Bush annihilated John McCain. For two days I rode in the McCain caravan, and then spent two more days driving to Bush events. So I enjoyed Bernstein’s interview with the legendary political reporter Curtis Wilkie, a star of “The Boys on the Bus.” I got to talk with Wilkie on the trail 12 years ago, when he was still working for the Globe. Wilkie has since moved on to the University of Mississippi.

“For the broader audience in the middle of the country, the idea that your local paper does not have a presence there, it’s sad,” Wilkie tells Bernstein.

The problems of political coverage are the same as they ever were: an obsession with the horse race to the near-exclusion of ideas; a pack mentality that makes it difficult for anyone to report stories that are truly different; and an orientation toward inside stories about strategy rather than about how candidates might actually govern.

Bernstein has given us a close-up look at how the good, the bad and the ugly of political journalism has made the transition to the technological, post-newspaper age.

Photo © 2011 by the University of Mississippi.

New Haven Register to stop presses, cut 105 jobs

As a symbol of a newspaper that’s out of touch with its community, you couldn’t do much better (in other words, much worse) than the headquarters of the New Haven Register. The city’s daily newspaper is located in a former shirt factory alongside Interstate 95 amid an undistinguished strip of businesses. A barbed-wire fence surrounds part of the property.

So though you’ve got to be sad at today’s news that the Register will soon be printed by the Hartford Courant and that 105 people will lose their jobs, in the long run it should provide the Register with an opportunity to rebuild its community ties. The New Haven Independent covers the story, and it follows by days the announcement that the Boston Globe will soon begin printing most editions of the Boston Herald.

New Haven Register editor Matt DeRienzo has said he wants to move the staff — or at least part of it — to a downtown location where members of the public will be free to walk in, grab a cup of coffee and observe news meetings — as they already do at a smaller paper he also runs, the Torrington Register Citizen.

Recently, the Register began webcasting its news meetings as well.

Like many papers, the Register moved out of the downtown in the 1970s 1980s as a reflection of the large industrial enterprises they were in those days — manufacturing plants that took deliveries of paper and ink, and then sent fleets of vehicles across the region to distribute the finished product. It made a certain kind of sense, but it also represented the fraying of a relationship with the communities those papers served.

Now the Register’s owner, the Journal Register Co., has embarked on an extensive reinvention effort called “Digital First.” The Register’s decision to jettison its printing operation is a reflection of that effort, and it could be a sign of better days to come.

Globe (finally) to print Herald

A likely deal for the Boston Globe to print the Boston Herald was announced so long ago (last May) that you’re forgiven if you thought the tabloid was already being produced at 135 Morrissey Blvd.

In any event, the deal — which will cover most but not all of the Herald’s print run — finally became official yesterday. Some 50 union workers will lose their jobs. The Globe covers the story here, and the Herald here.

What does Kushner’s Maine move mean for the Globe?

Aaron Kushner, the greeting-card mogul who’s been trying to buy the Boston Globe for the past year, is part of a group that is acquiring the Portland Press Herald and related properties, according to reports in the Press-Herald and the Globe.

So does the Kushner group see this as a first step toward its ultimate goal — or have the investors decided to focus their attention exclusively on Maine? Chris Harte, a former Press Herald president and a member of the investment group, won’t say, according to the Press Herald.

No one knows whether the New York Times Co. would sell the Globe or not. But certainly Janet Robinson’s sudden retirement as chief executive of the Times Co., followed quickly by the sale of 16 smaller papers, has sparked speculation that the Globe might be on the block.

I recently rounded up the long, rocky history of the Times Co. and the Globe for the Huffington Post.

Appeal filed in bloggers-aren’t-journalists case

Lawyer-blogger Eugene Volokh has filed an appeal in the matter of the Montana blogger who lost a $2.5 million libel case after a federal judge ruled she was not entitled to the legal protections enjoyed by journalists.

“The motion for new trial,” Volokh writes, “argues that the First Amendment applies equally to all who speak to the public, whether or not they belong to the institutional media.”

I wrote about the case last month for the Huffington Post. In a nutshell, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that Crystal Cox, a self-described “investigative blogger,” could not be considered a journalist under Oregon law, where she was sued. Hernandez wrote that he reached that conclusion because Cox did not work for a newspaper or broadcast outlet, and because she lacked training and failed to demonstrate professional standards.

Hernandez’s ruling had two effects. First, Cox could not invoke Oregon’s shield law to protect her source or sources, whose identity was sought by the plaintiffs, a financial-services company and one of its executives. That ruling was actually of little account, since even established media organizations can’t invoke shield laws to defend themselves against libel suits.

Of far more importance was Hernandez’s ruling that the plaintiffs would not have to prove Cox had acted negligently — only that what she had published was false and defamatory. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that libel plaintiffs must prove the defendant acted with some degree of fault, with negligence as the lowest standard the states could require. But, seizing on an ambiguity in the wording, Hernandez claimed the Gertz protection only applies to professional journalists.

Volokh, by contrast, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear for many decades that journalists do not enjoy any special protections under the First Amendment — meaning that any rulings the court has made about the press apply to everyone, not just to those carrying a press pass from a newspaper or television station. (Which was the main thrust of my Huffington Post commentary.) According to the brief, filed by Volokh and Benjamin Souede:

[W]hile the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision establishes what Oregon state libel law is, it is the judgments of the United States Supreme Court that are controlling on the First Amendment question. The United States Supreme Court has never held that the institutional press enjoys such extra rights. All the federal courts of appeals that have considered this question have specifically held that the institutional press lacks any such extra rights.

As several people who’ve looked at this case have reported, most notably David Carr of the New York Times, there is ample evidence that Crystal Cox’s conduct was reprehensible, and that the plaintiffs — Obsidian Financial Group and one of its executives, Kevin Padrick — might easily have won their libel case even if they had been required to meet the Gertz negligence standard.

What makes this case important is not Cox, but rather the principle that all of us — not just professional journalists — should be able to speak and write freely without inadvertently running afoul of libel laws.