Author Archives: Dan Kennedy

About Dan Kennedy

I am an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, and I'm using WordPress.com for my blog, Media Nation, as well as class websites.

Ben Bradlee and the importance of private ownership

Several months ago I re-read what David Halberstam had to say about The Washington Post in “The Powers That Be,” his monumental 1979 book about the rise of the Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and CBS News.

As we celebrate the life and career of the Post’s legendary executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who died on Tuesday, it’s worth pondering the economic environment that made Bradlee’s charismatic brand of leadership possible: private ownership.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

Can The Portland Phoenix avoid the fate of its siblings?

The Portland Phoenix of Maine may be on the verge of joining its Boston and Providence siblings in Alt-Weekly Heaven, according to Edward Murphy of the Portland Press Herald and Seth Koenig of the Bangor Daily News. Owner Stephen Mindich was reportedly poised to sell the Portland paper to one of its employees (unnamed), but the deal has fallen through.

I suppose it would be naive to say that I’m surprised. But I am, at least a little bit. As recently as this past summer an insider told me that the Providence paper was struggling but that Portland was doing well. And Portland is the sort of small, insular, arts-rich city where alt-weeklies are still hanging on. In fact, as Koenig observes of The Portland Phoenix:

It long appeared from the outside to be the most financially stable of the Phoenix papers, always keeping enough advertising to fill out around 50 pages of content (newspapers get thinner when there aren’t enough ads to justify printing as many pages) and never needing to follow the Boston Phoenix’ desperate, last moment reinvention as a glossy magazine.

Desperate? Maybe. I think you could also make the case that if the Boston paper had gone the glossy route two or three years earlier, it might still be around.

In any case, I’m hoping that this time the story turns out differently. The mere fact that someone wants to buy the paper suggests that, from a business point of view, there’s something worth saving.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, 1921-2014

Ben Bradlee in 2010.

Ben Bradlee in 2010

Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee has died at the age of 93.

Bradlee had been in failing health for some time, but it’s still a shock that this legendary figure is no longer with us. Interestingly enough, the Post obit is by former managing editor Robert Kaiser, whose essay “The Bad News About the News” has been generating a lot of attention and debate over the past week.

It is often said when someone important dies that it’s the end of an era. It’s an overused phrase, and Bradlee’s era of newspaper giants and swashbuckling editors ended some time ago. He was a great journalist who, along with the late publisher Katharine Graham, created a great newspaper. The news business will not be the same without him.

Photo (cc) by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Jill Abramson reveals few details about startup venture

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Jill Abramson, fired (her words) last summer as New York Times executive editor, will join with Steven Brill on a startup to “give great journalists money they can live on.”

In a Boston University question-and-answer session Monday evening, she provided few details but said she and Brill — who won the National Magazine Award last year for his Time magazine cover story on medical costs — will write one story a year for the site. She said they’ve been pitching potential investors on the project.

Abramson was joined on stage by New York Times media columnist David Carr, a visiting professor at BU, who served up a steady stream of questions to his former boss.

In other remarks, Abramson praised former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee as “the most consequential editor of my lifetime”  and called The New York Review of Books a “perfect publication.”

Abramson, now teaching a once-a-week class at Harvard on narrative journalism, condemned “false equivalence” — reporting “on the one hand/on the other hand” as if each side is equally credible.”

After weighing and sifting all the facts, she said, journalists have the right to determine which side is right. As an example, she cited “Strange Justice,” the 1994 book she wrote with her then Wall Street Journal colleague Jane Mayer. They concluded that Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Clarence Thomas had lied about significant incidents in his past.

“What is the press but calling power people and institutions to account?” she asked.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Gary Webb: A flawed prophet who deserved better

Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.

Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.

It’s been a long time since I gave much thought to Gary Webb, the investigative reporter who wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 alleging that the CIA looked the other way (or worse) when the Nicaraguan contra rebels sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s — thus leading to the crack epidemic.

Major news organizations engaged in a furious effort to discredit Webb, and he was eventually pushed into resigning from the Mercury News. He made several attempts to revive his career (including a stint with friend of Media Nation Al Giordano’s NarcoNews.com), but committed suicide in 2004.

Now a movie about Webb has come out called “Kill the Messenger.” I would like to see it. Here’s what I wrote about Webb in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 — part of a longer article on the crisis of credibility afflicting investigative reporting:

A good example of how important work can be quashed is the case of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In August 1996, the Mercury published a three-part series by Webb alleging that Nicaraguan contra rebels, backed by the CIA, had sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s in order to finance their guerrilla war against the leftist Sandinista government. These operations, Webb asserted, touched off the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods across the country.

The series gained a national audience, especially among African-Americans, after the Mercury republished the series on its Web site. But when the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times published their own lengthy reports rebutting many of Webb’s conclusions, the Mercury backed off. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos apologized for the reports’ flaws in 1997, and Webb was exiled to the Cupertino bureau. He ultimately resigned.

Now Webb is back, with a new book that incorporates and expands on his original series. Unfortunately, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories Press) is no guide to what went wrong unless you’re a blind Webb partisan. According to Webb, the big guns who came after him were motivated by malice and envy, and by a knee-jerk institutional need to suck up to the national security establishment. What few mistakes made it into in his stories, he asserts, were put there by boneheaded editors at the Mercury.

In fact, the anti-Webb exposés did establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Webb overreached in several key areas. Yet they never seriously challenged Webb’s central, well-documented premise: that the contras were selling cocaine in the US in order to fund their war in Nicaragua, and that their CIA sponsors looked the other way.

In October 1996, Geneva Overholser, then-ombudsman of the Washington Post, took her paper to task for putting more effort into exposing the flaws in Webb’s reporting than into following up the leads he had unearthed, and she challenged her colleagues to investigate further. No one took her up on it. Yet on Friday, the New York Times reported the existence of a classified CIA study that showed the agency “continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations that they were trafficking in drugs.” At long last. Webb, of course, remains in the journalistic wilderness.

Everything is awesome at Kushner’s Orange County Register

The downward spiral of Aaron Kushner and the Orange County Register continues, reports Christine Haughney of The New York Times. The latest — a round-up of what has appeared elsewhere — includes unpaid bills, lawsuits, Kushner’s stepping aside as publisher (“I was not removed,” he insists) and, of course, Kushner’s soothing reassurances that everything is on track.

A cool, late-autumn afternoon on the North Shore

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Russell Orchards, Ipswich, earlier today. The place to go for hot cider and hot cider donuts. But it seemed weird to be there without the kids. Click here for larger sizes of this photo.