Tag Archives: New York Times

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.

Matt Bai, Tom Fiedler set sail aboard the Monkey Business

jpgPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was the summer of 2009, and the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication was in town. A group of us went out to dinner at Legal Seafoods at the Pru. Among them was Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and the former executive editor of the Miami Herald.

Fiedler held us in thrall with a blow-by-blow description of his best-known story: the sinking of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign aboard the good ship Monkey Business. It was the Herald that staked out Hart’s townhouse in Washington and learned that a woman named Donna Rice had been staying with him. Hart soon dropped out of the campaign; he later re-entered it but failed to gain any traction.

Last month The New York Times Magazine published a long excerpt from a book by Times political reporter (and Boston Globe alumnus) Matt Bai arguing that the Herald’s pursuit of Hart represented something new and disturbing in American politics: Journalists in the skeptical post-Watergate era were no longer willing to give politicians a pass on any misbehavior, including their sexual peccadilloes. Perhaps the most damning part of Bai’s piece was his discovery that Fiedler, who had long cited Hart’s challenge to “follow me around” as justification, had actually not learned of that challenge until after the Herald’s stakeout.

Now Fiedler has written a strong, thoughtful article for Politico Magazine in which he responds to Bai, taking the view that a presidential candidate’s lies should not be considered “inconsequential.” Fielder’s take on the “follow me around” matter is worth quoting in full:

For Bai, much hinges on the precise timing of this quote. He claims that the Herald used the “follow me around” challenge to justify its pursuit of Hart. This was dishonest, he suggests, because we couldn’t have known about it before the stakeout — the quote appeared in the [New York] Times on May 3, the same day our story ran. What Bai doesn’t acknowledge is that we didn’t need the [E.J.] Dionne quote for justification.

A week or so before the Herald and the Times’ articles ran, in an interview with me, Hart had been similarly dismissive of the womanizing allegations, saying, “I’ve been in public life for 15 years and I think that if there was anything about my background that anybody had any information on, they would bring it forward. But they haven’t.” The Hart quote I published wasn’t as dramatic as the one Hart provided to Dionne, but its intent was the same. And it was a lie. That’s not news?

Fiedler’s purpose is not to discredit Bai. Indeed, Fiedler calls himself “a great admirer of Bai’s talents as a journalist and a writer.” But Fiedler does manage to provide a different context for why and how Hart’s downfall was covered. If you read Bai’s article, you owe it to yourself to read Fiedler’s as well.

(Disclosure: Fiedler is a friendly acquaintance and a colleague on WGBH’s “Beat the Press.”)

New York Times journos discuss Innovation Report

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 4.28.30 PMAn all-star panel came together on Friday evening at the Online News Association conference in Chicago to discuss The New York Times’ celebrated Innovation Report — an internal document about the Times’ efforts to adjust to the digital age that became public when it was leaked to BuzzFeed.

The report, wrote Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab last May, is “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.” Both the full document and a comprehensive summary are available as part of Benton’s piece, and they are well worth reading. The report describes how the Times — in many ways an innovator in the transition to digital — is still being held back by an antiquated management structure, an overemphasis on what goes on page one of the print edition, and a lack of understanding of how to promote and distribute the Times’ journalism.

The ONA panel was moderated by Ann Marie Lipinski (@AMLwhere), curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. The panelists were Amy O’Leary (@amyoleary), deputy editor for digital operations at the Times and one of the authors of the report; Tyson Evans (@tysone), the Times’ editor of newsroom strategy, who also contributed to the report; and Alex MacCallum (@alexmaccallum), recently promoted to a newly created assistant managing editor’s slot to oversee audience engagement.

Hundreds of people were on hand, and many of them — including me — live-tweeted the panel. Bursts of fragmentary news are no substitute for a well-crafted story about the event (here’s one by a student who covered it), but they can give you some flavor of the discussion. Here’s what I had say, including a couple of retweets that I thought were worth sharing.

The good, the bad and the ugly of the new news ecosystem

Is this a new golden age of journalism? It all depends on who’s getting the gold.

For consumers of news, these are the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, we are awash in quality journalism, from longstanding bastions of excellence such as The New York Times and The Guardian to start-ups that are rising above their disreputable roots such as BuzzFeed and Vice News.

For producers of news, though, the challenge is to find new ways of paying for journalism at a time when advertising appears to be in terminal decline.

The optimistic and pessimistic views got an airing recently in a pair of point/counterpoint posts. Writing in Wired, Frank Rose gave the new smartphone-driven media ecosystem a thumbs up, arguing that mobile — rather than leading to shorter attention spans — has actually helped foster long-form journalism and more minutes spent reading in-depth articles. Rose continued:

Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting.

That Rose-colored assessment brought a withering retort from Andrew Leonard of Salon, who complained that Rose never even mentioned the difficulties of paying for all that wonderful journalism.

“The strangest thing about Rose’s piece is that there isn’t a single sentence that discusses the economics of the journalism business,” Leonard wrote, adding: “If you are lucky, you might be able to command a freelance pay rate that hasn’t budged in 30 years. But more people than ever work for nothing.”

To support his argument, Leonard linked to a recent essay on the self-publishing platform Medium by Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about Internet culture. Shirky, author of the influential 2009 blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” as well as books such as “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus,” predicted that advertising in print newspapers is about to enter its final death spiral. That’s because Sunday inserts are about to follow classified ads and many types of display ads into the digital-only world, where retailers will be able to reach their customers in a cheaper, more targeted way. Here’s how Shirky put it:

It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place.

There’s no question that print will eventually go away, though it may survive for a few more years as a high-priced specialty product for people who are willing to pay for it. The dilemma of how to pay for journalism, though, is not going away.

Free online news supported solely by advertising has not proven to be a reliable business model, although there are exceptions, including a few well-managed hyperlocals, like The Batavian in western New York, and sites that draw enormous audiences while employing very few people, like The Huffington Post.

Digital paywalls that require users to pay up after reading a certain number of articles have helped bolster the bottom lines of many newspapers, including The Boston Globe. But very few have been able to generate a significant amount of revenue from paywalls, with The New York Times being a notable exception.

It may turn out that the most reliable path for journalism in the digital age is the nonprofit model, with foundations, wealthy individuals and small donors picking up the tab. It’s a model that has worked well for public television and radio, and that is currently supporting online news organizations both large (ProPublica) and small (the New Haven Independent). But nonprofits are hardly a panacea. The pool of nonprofit money available for journalism is finite, and in any case the IRS has made it difficult for news organizations to take advantage of nonprofit status, as I wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013.

Journalism has never been free. Someone has always paid for it, whether it was department stores taking out ads in the Sunday paper or employers buying up pages and pages of help-wanted ads in the classifieds. Today, the most pressing question for journalists isn’t whether we are living in another golden age. Rather it’s something much blunter: Who will pay?

Billionaires’ bash: Big moves by Henry’s Globe, Bezos’ Post

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Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday may have been the biggest day yet for billionaire newspaper owners John Henry and Jeff Bezos. Henry’s Boston Globe launched the long-anticipated Crux, a free standalone website that covers the Catholic Church. And Bezos replaced Katharine Weymouth as publisher of The Washington Post, bringing an end to the 81-year reign of the Meyer-Graham family.

At a time when the newspaper business remains besieged by cuts (including 22 Newspaper Guild positions at The Providence Journal this week, according to a report by Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio), Henry and Bezos are taking the opposite approach.

“You can’t shrink your way to success,” new Washington Post publisher Frederick Ryan told Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post. “Growth is the way to continue to build a strong news organization.” Ryan’s words were nearly identical to those of the Globe’s chief executive officer, Michael Sheehan, at the unveiling of the paper’s weekly political section, Capital, in June: “You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success.”

First Crux. To my non-Catholic eyes, the site appears to offer an interesting mix of the serious and the not-so-serious. The centerpiece is John Allen’s deeply knowledgeable reporting and analysis, some of which will continue to appear in the Globe. (In late August, Publishers Marketplace reported that Allen is writing a biography of Pope Francis with the working title of “The Francis Miracle.” No publisher was named, but according to this, Time Home Entertainment will release it in March 2015.)

Crux national reporter Michael O’Loughlin has weighed in with features on Native American Catholics who blend tribal and Roman traditions and on the Vatican Secret Archives, whose contents turn out to be not as interesting as the phrase makes them sound. Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín covers stories such as Pope Francis’ call for peace in Gaza. WGBH’s Margery Eagan, a former Boston Herald columnist, is writing a column called “On Spirituality.” The events calendar makes it clear that Crux is a very Catholic venture.

There’s a lighter side to Crux, too, such as a trivia quiz on the saints and updates on football teams from Catholic colleges. Crux’s own reporters are supplemented with wire services, including the Associated Press, Catholic News Service and Religion News Service, as well as personal essays such as the Rev. Jonathan Duncan’s rumination on life as a married Catholic priest with children (he used to be an Episcopalian). Crux is also asking readers to write brief essays; the debut topic is illegal immigration.

Two quibbles. An article on the suffering of Iraqi Christians was published as a straight news story, even though the tagline identifies it as coming from “the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need.” When you click to “learn more,” you find out that Church in Need is an advocacy organization that is actively seeking donations. The disclosure is sufficient, but the placement strikes me as problematic. If Crux were a print newspaper, the article could have appeared on the op-ed page. Crux needs a clearly marked place for such material as well.

My other quibble is that content is undated, leaving the impression that everything is now. That can cause confusion, as with a John Allen Globe piece on immigration that refers to “Friday night” — and links to an Associated Press story published on Aug. 2. (Dates do appear on author bios.)

The site is beautifully designed, and it’s responsive, so it looks good on tablets and smartphones. There are a decent number of ads, though given the state of digital advertising, I think it would make sense — as I wrote earlier this summer — to take the best stuff and publish it in a paid, ad-supported print product.

Globe editor Brian McGrory, Crux editor Teresa Hanafin, digital adviser David Skok and company are off to a fine start. For more on Crux, see this article by David Uberti in the Columbia Journalism Review and this, by Justin Ellis, at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

***

A torrent of punditry has already accompanied the news that Frederick Ryan, a former chief executive of Politico, will become publisher of The Washington Post on Oct. 1.

The irony is thick. When Post political reporters John Harris and Jim VanDeHei proposed launching Politico under the newspaper’s auspices in 2006, they were turned down. Today, Politico often dominates the political conversation in a way that the Post used to (and, of course, sometimes still does). I’m not always a fan of Politico’s emphasis on politics as insider gamesmanship, but there’s no doubt the site has been successful.

As the Post’s own account makes clear, Ryan is a longtime Republican activist, and was close to both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That shouldn’t affect the Post’s news operations, though it could affect the editorial page — hardly a bastion of liberalism even now. In another Post story, Ryan “endorsed” executive editor Marty Baron and editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt. Baron, a former Globe editor, may be the best newspaper editor working on this side of the Atlantic.

What concerns me is the strong scent of insiderism that is attached to Ryan. In an address to the staff, Ryan said one of his goals is “winning the morning,” according to a series of tweets by Post media blogger Erik Wemple (reported by Jim Romenesko). That might seem unremarkable, except that it sounds like something right out of the Politico playbook — um, make that “Playbook.”

A New York Times account by Ravi Somaiya dwells on Ryan’s obsession with the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, and quotes Ryan as calling it “an important event.” Those of us who find the dinner to be an unseemly display of Beltway clubbiness might agree that it’s important, but for different reasons.

Then again, if Ryan can fix the Post’s business model and show the way for other news organizations, all will be forgiven. The Post, like the Globe, has been expanding under new ownership. On Tuesday, the Post unveiled its most recent venture, The Most, an aggregation site.

Bezos’ track record at Amazon shows that he’s willing to take the long view. I suspect that he’s still just getting started with the Washington Post.

 

Making sense of the violence in Ferguson

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Like many others, I watched in horrified fascination last night as this livestream from Ferguson, Missouri, played out online. (Thanks to Sara Rosenbaum, whose Twitter stream alerted me to it.) With cable news slow off the mark, the amateur footage of police firing rubber bullets at peaceful protesters was all we had.

But live images from a chaotic scene on the ground are no substitute for context and analysis. As we try to make sense of the Michael Brown shooting and the community and police response, I want to call your attention to several pieces that have helped me understand what’s going on: