Tag Archives: This American Life

Naming names: Did the Globe make the right call?

redactedPreviously published at WGBH News.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about The Boston Globe’s decision to publish the names of the FBI agent and State Police troopers who were involved in the Florida shooting death of Ibragim Todashev, the Tamerlan Tsarnaev associate suspected of taking part in a triple murder in Waltham.

The story, by Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti, reveals that FBI agent Aaron McFarlane is a former Oakland police officer with a troubling past. The article raises serious questions about how law enforcement handled the investigation of perhaps the single most important figure connected to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Here is some background to keep in mind as the discussion unfolds.

This past January, David Boeri of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) reported on the FBI-State Police interrogation that ended in Todashev’s death. Here’s what Boeri had to say about the names of the agent and the two troopers:

In the course of our investigation, WBUR has learned the names of the law enforcement officers involved in the shooting. We are not releasing the names at the request of both the FBI and the Massachusetts State Police, which cited specific concerns for their safety.

In today’s Globe article, we learn that the FBI agent’s name is Aaron McFarlane, and that he “has previously been publicly identified in a blog about the Boston Marathon case.”

That prompted Boston magazine editor-in-chief Carly Carioli to tweet:

(And by the way, in March Boston published its own long investigation into the shooting. The article, by Susan Zalkind, was also the subject of a one-hour segment on public radio’s “This American Life.”)

Carioli’s tweet leads to a site called “The Boston Marathon Bombings: What Happened?”, which on May 3 revealed the names of McFarlane and the two Massachusetts troopers, Joel Gagne and Curtis Cinelli. (As best as I can tell, that’s the first time any of the three officers was named.) According to the site, the names and uncensored crime-scene photos were obtained from PDFs of public records using techniques that sound similar to what the Globe did. The Globe offers this description:

The Globe obtained their names by removing improperly created redactions from an electronic copy of Florida prosecutor Jeffrey L. Ashton’s report — which in March found the shooting of Todashev justified — and then verifying their identities through interviews and multiple government records. Those records include voting, birth, and pension documents.

On May 5, the same “What Happened?” website revealed some of the problems McFarlane had as a member of the Oakland Police Department that are at the heart of today’s Globe story.

I should note that though the “What Happened?” site appears to have broken some important stories, it also traffics in rather, uh, unusual rhetoric. For instance, here is a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloody and injured as he surrendered in Watertown, beneath the headline “2013: THE YEAR AMERICA BEGAN HUNTING DOWN AND SHOOTINGS[sic] IT’S [sic] OWN TEENAGERS. WHY?”

By all indications the Globe has been careful to do its own reporting — which it would in any case, but which is especially important when dealing with material like this.

Which brings us to the question I imagine we’ll be debating in the days to come: Should the Globe have released the names of McFarlane, Gagne and Cinelli? I’d like to hear arguments on both sides. But keep these three things in mind:

  • The official investigation into Todashev’s death had not been completed when Boeri was doing his reporting for WBUR in January. Since then the three have been cleared by investigators, and the matter is no longer pending.
  • Police officers are doing the public’s business, and we have a right to know as much information as possible about serious matters such as the Todashev shooting. Consider a much more routine example, reported by the Salem News, in which the Essex County district attorney’s office named officers involved in a fatal shooting in the course of disclosing the results of their investigation.
  • Because of the “What Happened?” report, the three names were, in fact, already out there. Whatever calculation Globe editors might have made if this had occurred 20 years ago, it is simply a reality that a mainstream news organization can no longer act as a gatekeeper to prevent the public from learning information that it can find out elsewhere. This change doesn’t call for lower standards, but it does call for different standards.

I realize I’m putting my thumb on the disclosure side of the scale. But I think withholding the names would have been a respectable decision as well. As Sacchetti writes today, “Even Florida, which often identifies such officers, declined to do so in this case, citing concerns for the investigators’ safety.”

At this early stage, I can be persuaded either way, and I’m curious to see and hear what others have to say.

Patented lunacy

I listened to this mind-boggling story from “This American Life” on patent madness as I was driving home from Connecticut earlier today. Our out-of-control patent system is destroying innovation and harming the economy. Be prepared to be horrified.

Media Nation’s top 10 posts of 2012

be02f758328311e2b55612313804a1b1_7Work-force reductions at The Boston Globe. The end of WFNX as an over-the-air radio station. “Local” news from the Philippines. Possible bankruptcy at GateHouse Media.

These were a few of the top 10 Media Nation posts of 2012 as determined by Google Analytics and WordPress’ own internal statistics.

Most people who read Media Nation come in via the home page, which means that any notion of a “top 10” is dubious. Usually it means that a particular post got retweeted a lot on Twitter or was linked to by a popular media website such as JimRomenesko.com.

But the list isn’t entirely without meaning — and one takeaway for me is that Media Nation’s role as an aggregator and a curator may be its most important. I’ll keep that in mind in the year ahead.

Here is my top 10 for 2012.

1. The Boston Globe keeps on shrinking (July 23). Despite some encouraging signs in the form of rising digital-subscription numbers and a continued commitment to first-rate journalism, The Boston Globe, like nearly all daily newspapers, continues to struggle financially. Last summer Media Nation obtained a memo from Globe publisher Christopher Mayer announcing another wave of downsizing at the Globe and its sister paper, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

2. Donna Halper on the future of radio (May 17). Friend of Media Nation Donna Halper was kind enough to write a guest commentary, and her post turned out to be the second most popular of 2012. Halper wrote following an announcement by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group that it would sell WFNX’s broadcast frequency, 101.7 FM, to Clear Channel. Fortunately for local music fans, by the end of 2012 WFNX and the Globe’s RadioBDC were engaged in a spirited competition of online-only local music stations — the real future of radio.

3. Long-distance “local” journalism (July 5). The public radio program “This American Life” and the journalist Anna Tarkov reported extensively on Journatic, which helps community newspapers cuts costs by outsourcing some of their local coverage. At its worst, news was being compiled by underpaid Filipino workers writing under fake bylines. Dubbed “pink slime” journalism by one former practitioner, Journatic underscored what debt-ridden corporate chains will do to survive — and thus demonstrated the importance of independent local journalism.

4. And Joe Scarborough thinks “Morning Joe” is awesome (Jan. 1). A full-page ad in The New York Times for the wretched MSNBC program “Morning Joe” started the gears whirring when I noticed one of its celebrity endorsers was Tom Brokaw. Who, uh, appears on “Morning Joe.” I got to work, and soon found that Politico, which was quoted as praising the program, had an undisclosed partnership. The ad even stooped to using seemingly positive quotes from two reviewers who actually didn’t like it much at all. Disingenuous, to say the least.

5. More bad news for GateHouse Media (March 19). By now it’s not exactly news when executives at GateHouse Media, struggling with $1.2 billion in debt, pay themselves handsome bonuses. (Nor is that unusual at newspaper companies.) In 2012, though, there was a wrinkle at the chain, which owns some 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine paged through the company’s financial disclosures and discovered that officials were openly raising the possibility of a bankruptcy filing.

6. David Gregory debates himself (Oct. 1). The host of “Meet the Press” was brought in to moderate the second televised debate between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Unfortunately, it was all about David Gregory. Good thing the candidates were forced to weigh in on whether Bobby Valentine deserved a second year as Red Sox manager. Warren blew the question but won the election.

7. From Newtown, a plea for media restraint (Dec. 17). I republished an open letter from John Voket, associate editor of The Newtown Bee, to his colleagues at the New England Newspaper & Press Association following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Voket wrote about “reporters and media crews invading the yards and space of grieving survivors, school staff and responders,” and asked editors “to remind your correspondents that most are still requesting to be left alone.” A heartfelt message from ground zero.

8. Calling foul on politicians who lie (Aug. 30). It would be hard to come up with a more falsehood-laden performance than U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Ryan’s lies prompted me to wonder how far the balance-obsessed media would be willing to go in labeling them for what they were.

9. At CNN, getting it first and getting it wrong (June 28). My instant reaction to CNN’s false report that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. At least CNN executives flogged themselves in the public square. As we later learned, Fox News made the same mistake — and refused to apologize.

10. An unconscionable vote against the disabled (Dec. 5). My reaction to Senate Republicans’ rejection of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled — a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, championed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Ghosts of 2011. Oddly enough, the single most popular post of 2012 was one I wrote in 2011 — a fairly terse item on Jay Severin’s return to the Boston airwaves, a comeback that proved to be brief. As I wrote last year, I’ve put up several Severin posts that have generated huge traffic, and I have no idea why.

Exposing the “‘pink slime’ journalism” of Journatic

If you care about local news, then you must listen to a report on “This American Life,” broadcast last weekend, that exposes a scandal whose importance can’t be overstated.

The story is about a company called Journatic, which produces local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who write articles under fake bylines.

And how great is it that “This American Life,” damaged earlier this year when it was victimized by fake journalism, has now exposed fake journalism elsewhere? Here is the Chicago Tribune — a major Journatic client — lecturing “TAL” on journalism ethics earlier this year.

After you listen, be sure to read the detailed back story, written by Anna Tarkov for Poynter.org.

Unfortunately, the broadcast aired just a few days before the Fourth of July, at a time when few people were paying much attention to the news. I hope it has the impact that it should.

The star of the “TAL” segment is a journalist named Ryan Smith, who kicks things off with a  killer anecdote. Smith tells producer Sarah Koenig that he drew an assignment to write a story about a “student of the week” for the Houston Chronicle. He called the principal, who suggested he swing by the school the next day.

Smith told him he’d rather do it by phone, but he didn’t tell him the reason: he was actually some 1,000 miles away.

Both Koenig and Tarkov interviewed Journatic chief executive Brian Timpone, who apologized for nothing and spewed forth a torrent of rationalizations and excuses: the fake bylines were to protect employees from lawyers; the Filipinos don’t actually write stories (they do); there’s no value to having reporters live in the community for routine local coverage such as police-blotter news and budget updates; and Journatic is providing coverage to communities that would otherwise have none.

Well, none might be preferable to the “‘pink slime’ journalism” (Smith’s felicitous description) that Journatic produces. Moreover, if the Chicago Tribune uses Journatic stories in its hyperlocal coverage in order to suck advertising money out of pizza shops, funeral homes and other businesses, it becomes that much harder for would-be entrepreneurs to start their own local news sites.

Since the “TAL” story broke, we’ve been learning more about who’s using Journatic material. The Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Sun-Times have all made use of Journatic, and are now in various degrees of renouncing it.

Of more local interest: so has GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts — mostly weeklies, but also some dailies, including the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton and the MetroWest Daily News.

According to a follow-up story by Tarkov, Journatic copy never made it into GateHouse’s Massachusetts properties. But the debt-ridden corporation is now setting up its own Journatic-like operations in Boston and in Rockford, Ill. Who knows where those honor rolls, obituaries and police logs will be coming from? (The blog post I’ve linked to suggests the centralized operations will be limited to design and layout. Tarkov’s story, though, references 10 “content providers” who will be based in Rockford.)

The media-reform group Free Press has mobilized over the Journatic revelations, with Libby Reinish summarizing the findings and Josh Stearns offering some advice on how to tell if what you’re reading is the real thing. Inevitably, Free Press has started a petition drive as well.

Unfortunately, the forces that make something like Journatic possible are very real. It’s expensive and labor-intensive to do local journalism right, and the crisis that has befallen the newspaper industry in recent years has made it that much harder. But this is truly beyond the pale. Even Patch, with its top-down, cookie-cutter approach, has journalists in each of its communities.

Ultimately, though, the solution will come from the bottom up, community by community, as is already the case with enterprises such as the New Haven Independent, the Batavian and dozens of others. Have a look at Authentically Local, an umbrella group of independent local sites organized by Debbie Galant, the co-founder of Baristanet in northern New Jersey.

Another potentially interesting experiment in local journalism will get under way later this year. The Banyan Project, begun by veteran journalist Tom Stites, will launch a test site in Haverhill to be called Haverhill Matters. The secret sauce is cooperative ownership, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. You’ll be reading more about Banyan at Media Nation in the weeks and months to come.

At one point in the “TAL” broadcast, Koenig says to Smith, “You are so fired.” It is perhaps a sign of how little the Journatic folks care about their reputation that, in fact, he hasn’t been. In an email to Jim Romenesko, Smith says it’s been business as usual, and that he’s received new assignments from his editor, who recently relocated from St. Louis to Brazil.

“I’m going to work the rest of the week,” Smith wrote, “and then resign.”

“NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

This is a mistake that comes up over and over, and today’s offender is the Boston Globe. The headline on an editorial about the Mike Daisey/“This American Life” debacle reads “NPR: Exposing Apple’s worm, and its own.”

The editorial itself refers to “This American Life” as an “NPR show.” It goes on to note that Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to China were unearthed by “another NPR reporter.” (“Another”? Daisey is not a reporter.)

If you haven’t figured out where I’m going by now, “This American Life” is not an NPR program. It’s produced by Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, a public station, and distributed by Public Radio International, a competitor of NPR’s.

Daisey’s assault on the truth was exposed by a reporter for “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media, yet another NPR competitor.

But wait. Doesn’t “This American Life” appear on NPR stations? No. And here’s where it gets confusing. Plenty of public radio stations market themselves as NPR stations because it’s a name brand they can use to attract listeners and advertisers — oops, sorry. Underwriters. NPR itself does not own stations.

Both of Boston’s large public stations, WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) call themselves NPR stations. But WBUR’s license is held by Boston University, and WGBH is an independent nonprofit organization that includes radio and television stations. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.) NPR is just one of several services (albeit the best-known) from which public radio stations buy programming.

“In a just world,” Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer recently tweeted, “we could say ‘NPR’ to describe all public radio, just as saying ‘Kleenex’ covers Scott Tissues and generic brands.”

Shafer was kidding, of course. And it does get confusing. But NPR takes enough grief from its critics without having to get blamed for programming on rival networks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send an email to CNN complaining about Sean Hannity.

Afternoon update: The headline and editorial have been rewritten, and a correction has been appended.

Photo (cc) by Raul654 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Three must-reads on the Mike Daisey meltdown

The blog semi-hiatus continues this week. But I do want to break my silence long enough to recommend three must-reads on the matter of Mike Daisey, the lying liar who bamboozled the public radio show “This American Life” about Apple and China, and was brought down last week:

You can listen to Ira Glass’ remarkable interview with Daisey here.