Monthly Archives: February 2012

In New Haven, a crisis over user comments

I’ve written a piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab about the New Haven Independent’s decision to suspend online comments. The move, by Independent founder and editor Paul Bass, is pretty dramatic, as his site is often looked to as a model for how to handle comments the right way. An excerpt:

So should the comments resume? I think they have to — they’re too integral a part of the Independent’s identity. Civic engagement has been on the wane for years, and it’s not enough for journalism merely to serve the public. As I wrote for The Guardian in 2009, news organizations need to recreate the very idea of a public by encouraging a sense of involvement and participation. At least until recently, the Independent did a remarkable job of doing just that. But clearly something changed.

Read the whole thing here.

Which Senate candidate is raising more money in-state?

So which U.S. Senate candidate is raising more money from Massachusetts residents? The Republican incumbent, Scott Brown, or his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren?

The emphasis in today’s Boston Globe story by Brian Mooney is on Warren’s out-of-state fundraising prowess. But I thought it would be interesting to dive a little deeper into the numbers. What I discovered is that either someone at the Globe is math-impaired — or that my own dubious math abilities have led me astray.

Let’s start, as I did, with Mooney’s story, which tell us that (1) Warren raised $5.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, 61.3 percent of it from out of state; and (2) Brown raised $3.2 million, 66 percent of it from inside the Bay State. By those numbers, Warren raised $2.2 million in Massachusetts and Brown raised $2.1 million. That would mean Warren isn’t just a national fundraising phenomenon, but she’s also doing better than Brown where it really matters.

But wait. After I read the story, I took a look at the bar graph accompanying it — and was informed (misinformed?) that Brown had raised $1.5 million in Massachusetts during the fourth quarter compared to just $1.2 million for Warren. The overall fundraising totals in the graph are much lower than what’s in Mooney’s story, so there’s clearly an apples-and-oranges problem somewhere.

But what is the problem? I’m not sure. Neither the story nor the chart explains the disparity. We’re talking about math, so I don’t rule out the possibility that there’s a simple explanation staring me right in the face. Any thoughts?

Sen. Kerry on Internet piracy

Last month I praised Sen. Scott Brown for his quick response to those of us who signed an online petition opposing draconian anti-piracy bills being considered by Congress. On Monday, I heard from Sen. John Kerry as well. Here’s what he wrote:

Dear Dan:

Thank you for your letter regarding the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act). I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.

I have long championed the cause of innovation and an open Internet. Firms operating on and off the Internet strongly rely on intellectual property laws to help protect their investments and ensure a just return for their goods and services. Online piracy and copyright infringement hurts our economy and costs American businesses more than 200 billion dollars a year. Many infringers operate from foreign countries in order to avoid US law enforcement. As a result, under current law, American authorities are limited in what they can do to bring these rogue sites to justice.

As you know, the PROTECT IP Act was intended to protect American businesses from intellectual property theft on foreign websites. Among other things, the bill would provide the Attorney General with the authority to seek a court injunction against a foreign website that engages in copyright infringement. The court could also require U.S. websites to block access to websites found to be dedicated to infringing activities. For example, search engines could be required to disable links to the website that is found to be violating copyright of a US company.

However, there are a number of serious and legitimate concerns regarding the scope of the legislation, as well as the potential for abuse, censorship, or other unintended consequences. The authors recognize the legislation still needs work and I will oppose any proposal that would fundamentally undermine or impede the ability of people to communicate, compete, and innovate using the Internet.

I am pleased that Majority Leader Reid has indefinitely postponed Senate consideration of the PROTECT IP Act, and I will continue to review and work to improve legislation to both protect the intellectual property of American businesses and to ensure the web remains free and open. As I consider proposals to address these issues, I will keep your views in mind.

Thank you again for contacting me on this topic. Please don’t hesitate to reach me again on this or any other issue in the future.

How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Vote for me

Tip O’Neill said you can’t win if you don’t ask for people’s votes. So today I’d like to ask if you’d consider voting for Media Nation in BostInno’s Insider Awards. You can click here or on the blue box to the right. Scroll down to “Higher Education.” The deadline is Wednesday. Thank you.

Mitt Romney, the inevitable and unelectable man

Mitt Romney

It’s only another poll, but today’s news from Public Policy Polling that Rick Santorum has jumped out to a 38 percent to 23 percent lead over Mitt Romney prompts me ponder the fate of our former governor.

From the start, Romney’s candidacy has been defined by two dynamics.

On the one hand, there’s little doubt that he is absolutely unacceptable to right-wing Republicans, which is to say the people who actually comprise a majority of activists in the nominating process.

On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time a serious candidate for national office such as Romney was lucky enough to run against such a weak field of competitors. Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scarcely more credible than Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Ron Paul is running for his own purposes, which do not include becoming president. (Frankly, I’m not even sure that was Santorum’s or Gingrich’s goal when they first started running. Gingrich, in particular, mainly seemed interested in selling books and boosting his speaking fees.)

It’s because of my “one hand” that I believed until late last fall that Romney would never win the nomination. It’s because of my “other hand” that I gradually came to believe Romney had to win — and that, in fact, the health of our democracy depended on his keeping genuine loathsome characters such as Gingrich and Santorum as far away from the White House as possible.

After Florida, it looked like it was finally over, and that sullen Republicans would do what they were told. After Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, what will happen next is anyone’s guess. Romney’s craven speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference won’t help him, and his never-ending repositioning on issues has left him with an unappetizing choice between trying to look like he believes in something — anything — or giving in to his urge to tell whatever audience he’s speaking to exactly what he imagines it wants to hear.

If there’s still an authentic Romney underneath all the phony exteriors he’s tried on and discarded, then it is probably someone without a real political orientation — a pragmatic problem-solver, too liberal for Republicans (outside of Massachusetts), too conservative for Democrats, too bloodless and unappealing to be able to turn those qualities into a virtue, the way Ross Perot briefly did a dozen years two decades ago. [Seems like it was just last week!]

I imagine Romney will turn the battleship around and aim the cannons of his Super PAC at Santorum. I’d guess that we’ll be hearing about disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s (as yet unproven) connection to the Republican Frontrunner of the Moment. It may work. And yes, if Romney does somehow manage to stagger to the nomination, he’ll still be a more formidable candidate against President Obama than any other Republican.

But what we’re watching now is a strange and disturbing dynamic, as Romney — someone whose qualifications and experience are impressive, whatever his shortcomings as a candidate — tries to pick his way through the ruins of a once-great political party that has collapsed into a vestigial appendage of the Fox News Channel.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Marty Baron warns press against fear and timidity

Marty Baron

Earlier today I attended an event honoring Boston Globe editor Marty Baron as the 2012 winner of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, presented by the New England First Amendment Coalition.

Baron is the second winner. The first, in 2011, was retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, a longtime defender of the First Amendment.

Baron’s talk is well worth reading in full. Afterwards he sent me the text at my request, and I’m pleased to present it here. I was particularly struck by this, which comes near the end of his speech:

The greatest danger to a vigorous press today, however, comes from ourselves.

This is a moment in American history when the press has been made a fat target. The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — through words and actions, including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting), and even surreptitious taping, later subjected to selective, deceitful editing. Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda. In some instances, they have deployed scorched-earth tactics against us in hopes of dealing a crippling blow.

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

The full text of Baron’s prepared remarks — minus an improvised shoutout he gave to classmates from Lehigh University who were on hand — follows.

***

This award is named after a great publisher, Stephen Hamblett, who helped build a great newspaper, the Providence Journal.

The first award was given, last year, to a magnificent journalist, Tony Lewis — whose talent and erudition made him a leading expert on the First Amendment and one of the country’s pre-eminent columnists, at the New York Times.

And today I get to stand before so many extraordinary leaders in the field of journalism — publishers, writers, editors, journalists of every type — whose dedication to our craft and our mission serves as inspiration to me daily.

So, I am honored that I was invited to be with you to accept this award. And I am deeply grateful for what it means. This is recognition not solely for me, but also for all of my colleagues at The Boston Globe, many of whom were kind enough to be here today. Continue reading