The latest Nikole Hannah-Jones snub is not going to end well for the Middlesex School

Eliot Hall at the Middlesex School. Public domain photo by Daderot.

I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re only in the beginning stages of learning the story behind the Middlesex School’s decision to invite, and then uninvite, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to speak during Black History Month. Middlesex is an exclusive prep school in Concord. Hannah-Jones is best known for the 1619 Project, a reimagining of the role of slavery in American history that won her a Pulitzer Prize.

What always amazes me when something like this happens is the failure of the imagination we see on the part of those in charge. Does David Beare, the head of school who issued a limp statement about concerns over “individuals from outside our community” making a ruckus, really think this is going to end well either for the school or for him? This is not North Carolina.

A few other points worth noting. Among the school’s trustees is New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, a conservative and frequent critic of so-called cancel culture. Will he speak up on behalf of his Times colleague? Another prominent trustee is Cass Sunstein, a well-known Harvard Law School professor and a good bet to criticize this abomination.

Of possibly more significance is that Robert and Anne Bass are both vice presidents of the board. As Gabriel Snyder observes, the Basses are “part of a billionaire family that has bankrolled a lot of campus conservative outrage over the years.”

Stay tuned. There is going to be much more to come, I’m sure.

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Why does the media shrug over claims that former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski bragged about killing two men?

Corey Lewandowski grabs a female reporter at a 2016 Trump rally. Photo via police video.

Did a member of Donald Trump’s inner circle tell a woman he was trying to pick up that he’d killed two men during his misspent youth? And if he did say that, was he telling the truth — or was he merely boasting?

Read the rest at GBH News.

Bari Weiss, James Bennet and the selective omission of relevant facts

I had a chance on Monday to listen to Brian Stelter’s CNN podcast with Bari Weiss, the semi-conservative journalist who left The New York Times over what she perceived as an overabundance of left-wing groupthink.

It was an interesting conversation. I agreed with some of what Weiss had to say and disagreed with some of it. But I was put off by the revisionist history she espoused about the resignation of James Bennet as editorial-page editor of The New York Times. Stelter didn’t push back. I will.

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Weiss offered up as fact the notion that Bennet was forced out of the Times in 2020 solely because he published an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, calling for military force to be used against Black Lives Matter protesters. She described a letter signed by Times staffers saying that Cotton’s op-ed put their lives in danger as “craziness.”

And yes, Bennet’s departure came shortly thereafter. But here are a few facts that neither Weiss nor Stelter brought up:

  • After Bennet defended Cotton’s op-ed, it was learned that he hadn’t even bothered to read it before it was published — an inexcusable dereliction of duty.
  • Shortly before the Times published Cotton’s op-ed, Cotton called for the government to give “no quarter” to looters. As The Bulwark, a conservative website pointed out, giving no quarter in military terms means to kill indiscriminately — a war crime. Cotton, a veteran, knows that. Unfortunately, neither Bennet nor any other Times editor asked Cotton to address that in his op-ed.
  • In late 2019, Times columnist Bret Stephens suggested that Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically more intelligent than other people. Bennet allowed him to clean it up unscathed, although Stephens did have to suffer the indignity of an Editor’s Note being appended to his column. As Politico media critic Jack Shafer wrote at the time, “The Times disavowal and re-edit (tellingly neither co-signed nor acknowledged by Stephens) was too little and too late — if you’re going to edit a piece, the smart move is to edit before it publishes.” That, ahem, would be Bennet’s job. Wonder if he read that one before it was published?
  • Sarah Palin has sued the Times for libel over a 2017 editorial in which Bennet personally added language suggesting that a map published by Palin’s PAC, festooned with crosshairs, incited the shooting that severely wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others. There is no evidence — none — that the mentally ill shooter ever even saw the map. The lawsuit is still pending.

In other words, the mishandled Tom Cotton op-ed was merely the last in a series of banana peels that Bennet stepped on. It’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did.

After leaving the Times, Weiss moved to Substack and started the newsletter Common Sense. She is currently in the process of hiring a team of opinion writers to create what she told Stelter will be “the op-ed page that I want to read.”

Well, if the selective omission of relevant facts is what she wants to read — and wants to publish — then  you can count me out.

A pioneering cooperatively owned media outlet turns off the lights

Update: Laura Hazard Owen has more — a lot more — at Nieman Lab. Pretty ugly stuff.

***

The Devil Strip, a pioneering cooperatively owned magazine in Akron, Ohio, has closed its doors. More of an arts and culture outlet than a news organization, the operation has nevertheless stood as a successful example of an independent project owned by its employees and the community.

WKYC reports that the end came over the weekend — staff members were told on Friday that the money had run out, and on Monday they received layoff notices. The station adds:

Founded in 2014, The Devil Strip was a community-owned magazine that focused on music, arts, news, and culture in Akron. For as little as a dollar a month, readers had the opportunity to become members of the co-op. An investment of $330 allowed you to become a co-owner.

More from The Devil Strip’s Twitter account:

In March 2020, I spent a week in Northern California reporting on The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit news site that was converting to cooperative ownership. At that time the founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, told me that The Devil Strip was one of the projects they had studied.

I hope The Devil Strip might be able to reorganize and come back, though the tweet makes it sound like they’ve hit the end of the road. Founder Chris Horne has not tweeted about it except for a cryptic reference to a “sabbatical.” I’m sure he’ll have more to say soon.

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The ugly truth about Eric Clapton — and the line between the art and the artist

Eric Clapton. Photo (cc) 2009 by Andrea Young.

Eric Clapton was one of my first musical heroes. As an aspiring blues guitarist of soaring ambitions and slight talent, I played his greatest album — Derek and Dominos’ “Layla” (No. 6 on my all-time list, by the way) — over and over again, trying to figure out what he was doing on songs like “Key to the Highway” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.” I saw him at the Boston Garden in 1974, one of my first rock concerts. A full-page ad for that show from one of the alt-weeklies (probably The Real Paper) was on my bedroom wall. Clapton was and is a great guitarist, and by all appearances seemed to be a humble, generous ambassador for the Black music that he championed.

But appearances can be deceiving. Throughout this year, bits and pieces of Clapton’s dark side have been emerging. He came out as an anti-vaxxer along with Van Morrison (at least we already knew he was a jerk). Old racist comments surfaced, along with his cringe-inducing I-apologize-but-not-really reactions.

Now Rolling Stone has pulled it all together (sub. req.) and added some details. A 5,000-word-plus story by David Browne reports on Clapton’s racist outbursts, focusing especially on a drunken rant he delivered at a Birmingham concert in 1976 during which he offered up some vile racial slurs and spoke favorably of a British politician named Enoch Powell, described in the article as the George Wallace of the U.K. Over the years Clapton has repeatedly apologized and blamed it on the booze; he has also repeatedly said it was no big deal and that he continues to think it was “funny.”

His current anti-vax crusade extends to sending money to a down-on-their-luck anti-vax band and playing shows in the U.S. before maskless audiences in the Deep Red South. As Browne writes:

For the longest time, anyone asked to rattle off Clapton’s accomplishments would cite the vital role he played in bringing blues and reggae into mainstream culture and his prodigious guitar playing. (There was a reason someone spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on a London subway wall in the mid-Sixties.) Others couldn’t help but remember the horrific tragedy of his four-year-old son’s death and the emotional catharsis of “Tears in Heaven.” But the current controversy is prompting a fresh examination of Clapton’s past behavior, which includes jarringly racist statements he made in the early part of his career. How did we get from admiration and empathy to bewilderment and even a feeling of betrayal?

Although it wasn’t in the Rolling Stone article, Twitter reminded me this week that Clapton admitted to raping his wife in the 1970s, back when he had serious alcohol and heroin addictions. That’s not an excuse — it’s just evidence of how low he had sunk.

Here we get to the age-old dilemma about separating the art from the artist. Clapton is a great artist. He’s also a racist anti-vaxxer who’s also admitted to sexual assault. That said, John Lennon, Miles Davis and any number of other great musicians could be pretty terrible people as well. Do we still want to listen to Clapton’s music? Is it possible to do so without thinking about Clapton the person?

Clapton has had an odd career, as he’s remained at least somewhat in the spotlight even though his last good album, “461 Ocean Boulevard,” was released nearly 50 years ago. He’s done it on the strength of a few hit singles here and there, especially the aforementioned “Tears in Heaven”; an overpraised blues album, 1994’s “From the Cradle,” that’s derivative and flat compared to “Layla”; and his live performances, which have included multiple televised benefit concerts on which his guitar wizardry has stolen the show.

Now, at 76, wealthy and successful, he’s tearing down his legacy. Maybe we can let Buddy Guy remind Clapton of how lucky he’s been. “The man can play,” he told Rolling Stone. “If somebody’s good, I don’t call you big, fat, or tall. He just bent those strings, and I guess he bent them right on time. The British exploded the blues and put it in places we didn’t put it. I wish I could have had the popularity he got. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so damn hard.”

More: Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes a look at Rolling Stone under new editor Noah Shachtman and what the Clapton story says about his plans to toughen up the magazine’s coverage.

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Everybody’s talking about ‘Who Is the Bad Art Friend?’

I knew I wasn’t going to get around to reading “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” a wild piece published recently by The New York Times Magazine about plagiarism, narcissism and the nature of art. But after someone I interviewed last week started raving about it, I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Fortunately, the Times has posted the audio. The nearly 10,000-word article, by Robert Kolker, clocks in at slightly more than an hour. But it flew by, as it is beautifully written with compelling lead characters. I loved the ambiguity, too. At the end, I found the two writers at the heart of the story, Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, to be more or less equally sympathetic and flawed.

The story has a significant Boston angle, too, as the writers met and became friends — or at least acquaintances — at GrubStreet, a well-known creative writing center based in Boston.

Everyone’s been talking about it, but the sheer length might have put you off as it did me. Give it a read — or a listen. You’ll be glad you did.

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An elegant, comprehensive takedown of how Alden pillages local newspapers

Illustration by Thomas Nast

Among those of us who have obsessively followed Alden Global Capital’s destruction of newspapers over the years, there was very little that was new in McKay Coppins’ 7,000-word magnum opus that The Atlantic published this week. Still, Coppins is a gifted writer, and he’s pulled together the full story in a manner that is both elegant and comprehensive.

The arc of Coppins’ narrative is familiar. Alden, a hedge fund, got into the newspaper business about a decade ago. At first, Alden indulged the chief executive it inherited from one of the chains it acquired, John Paton, and then turned on him when he wasn’t willing to go along with the drastic cost-cutting they insisted on. I imagine Alden co-founder Heath Freeman was initially impressed with the blunt, profane Paton, who was not averse to slashing expenses to align them with revenues. The problem was that Paton actually cared about journalism and was not on board with Freeman’s insistence on endless rounds of cuts in order to enrich himself and the other co-founder, Randall Smith.

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One fact I hadn’t known previously is that Randall Smith, secretive and a generation or so older than Freeman, is the brother of Russ Smith, founder of the now-defunct New York Press. Russ also founded the Baltimore City Paper, the Washington City Paper and now runs the website Splice Today.

The New York Press was a big deal in the 1990s, as Coppins notes, publishing 10,000-word columns by Smith that attacked the elite media establishment. Smith also once published a lengthy takedown of The Boston Phoenix by another writer that infuriated all of us. I wish I still had a copy. No complaints by me about Smith, though — he wrote a favorable review of my first book for The Wall Street Journal, and I enjoy bantering with him on Twitter about music and baseball.

But back to our story. Coppins’ description of Freeman, the more active and public of the two partners in running Alden’s newspapers, is priceless:

People who know him described Freeman — with his shellacked curls, perma-stubble, and omnipresent smirk — as the archetypal Wall Street frat boy. “If you went into a lab to create the perfect bro, Heath would be that creation,” says one former executive at an Alden-owned company, who, like others in this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly. Freeman would show up at business meetings straight from the gym, clad in athleisure, the executive recalled, and would find excuses to invoke his college-football heroics, saying things like “When I played football at Duke, I learned some lessons about leadership.” (Freeman was a walk-on placekicker on a team that won no games the year he played.)

And Coppins’ description of Alden’s business model is right on target:

What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self….

Alden’s calculus was simple. Even in a declining industry, the newspapers still generated hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues; many of them were turning profits. For Freeman and his investors to come out ahead, they didn’t need to worry about the long-term health of the assets—they just needed to maximize profits as quickly as possible.

Where I have a bit of a problem with Coppins is that though he credits some of the earlier reporting he relies on, he’s haphazard about it. I winced at his sole reference to Julie Reynolds, whom he quotes indirectly a single time and identifies only as a former reporter for the Monterey Herald in California. In fact, since leaving the paper Reynolds has been indefatigable in reporting on Alden. It was because of her 2017 cover story for The Nation, for instance, that we know Randall Smith used his ill-gotten newspaper gains to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Just recently she reported for Nieman Lab that Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing was tainted by dubious gamesmanship of the sort that should have prompted a do-over.

Then there’s the Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, whose bid to buy Tribune fell short this past spring. In August, Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported that Bainum was launching a well-funded digital news nonprofit in order to compete with Alden’s Baltimore Sun. Coppins writes about that without giving any credit, and it’s being repeated in media circles as though it was his scoop.

But these are quibbles. Coppins is a gifted writer and has done a prodigious amount of reporting of his own.

Recently The Atlantic published an essay by Elaine Godfrey about the damage done to her hometown newspaper in Iowa by Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. (Alden’s holdings come in second.)

The Atlantic deserves credit for using its prestige to focus on the local news crisis, and on the Wall Street greed that has transformed it into a catastrophe.

Yes, local news holds corporations to account. No, hedge funds won’t save them.

Photo (cc) 2008 by mbgrigby

Update II: And the paragraph has been restored. I’m told there was nothing nefarious about its disappearance.

Update: Oh, my. The nutty last paragraph that prompted this post has been deleted. Not a good look, Harvard.

***

In an otherwise unremarkable story from Harvard Business School about a study into the effects of local newspaper closures on corporate wrongdoing, I ran into this bizarro closing paragraph. The story quotes Professor Jonas Heese, a co-author of the study:

Saving local newspapers isn’t Heese’s specialty, but he points to a recent trend of hedge funds buying up distressed local media outlets as having the potential to stabilize the market and resurrect local news. And that makes him wonder: “Is this a reason to be hopeful?”

No, Professor Heese. It is not a reason to be hopeful. I suggest you stick to statistical analysis, which you seem to be pretty good at. Here’s the abstract, from the Journal of Financial Economics, titled “When the Local Newspaper Leaves Town: The Effects of Local Newspaper Closures on Corporate Misconduct”:

We examine whether the local press is an effective monitor of corporate misconduct. Specifically, we study the effects of local newspaper closures on violations by local facilities of publicly listed firms. After a local newspaper closure, local facilities increase violations by 1.1% and penalties by 15.2%, indicating that the closures reduce firm monitoring by the press. This effect is not driven by the underlying economic conditions, the underlying local fraud environment, or the underlying firm conditions. Taken together, our findings indicate that local newspapers are an important monitor of firms’ misconduct.

Reading this leads me to think about our work at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, when we uncovered a massive toxic waste problem in the early 1980s that may have led to an outbreak of childhood leukemia and other illnesses. Charlie Ryan’s reporting was crucial to breaking the story wide open. In 1998, he recounted in The Boston Phoenix the sequence of events that led the world to understand that Woburn had an environmental and public health disaster on its hands:

Ryan’s most important story came in December 1979, on a development he thought he’d been beaten on. The state’s Department of Public Health was about to release the results of a study on Woburn’s leukemia rate, and Ryan arranged to interview DPH officials. That morning, the Boston Herald American published a front-page story reporting that the leukemia rate was within the normal range for a city of Woburn’s size.

“I was a little pissed,” Ryan remembers, “but I went in there anyway.” He sat down with a DPH statistician, who explained the results to him: essentially, the DPH had taken the number of leukemia cases and divided it by the total population of Woburn, based on the 1970 census. Ryan stopped him. 1970? The population of Woburn, Ryan knew, had fallen from 40,000 to around 36,000. Ryan asked a simple question: What would happen if the lower figure were used? The statistician recalculated the numbers — and, all of a sudden, the number of leukemia cases appeared to be “statistically significant,” the bland-sounding phrase used to describe what was obviously a very real problem.

“That story drastically changed everything,” says Ryan, who got out of journalism a few years ago and now helps run the computers for Essex County Newspapers. “To that point, everyone had considered Anne Anderson to be just a hysterical mom. I think without that story, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state never would have pushed that hard.”

Yes, local journalism is crucial in holding corporations to account, just as it is in keeping an eye on government and other large institutions. But no, hedge funds are not the solution. They’re the problem.

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Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement? The answer: It depends.

Meaningful participation in civic life isn’t possible without access to high-quality news and information. Consider the most fundamental aspect of community engagement: voting in local elections. If prospective voters lack the means to inform themselves about candidates for the select board, the city council, the school committee and the like, then it follows that they will be less likely to vote.

But is the reverse also true? Does the presence of a reliable news source result in a higher level of voter participation? To find out, I compared two towns, Bedford and Burlington, both northwest of Boston.

Read the rest at Storybench, a website about media innovation published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

AT&T’s sponsorship of right-wing One America News and the perverse incentives of cable TV

Photo (cc) 2004 by the autowitch

Previously published at GBH News.

At the heart of a bombshell report showing that AT&T nurtured and enriched the far-right One America News cable network is a larger, more ominous issue: a broken media system that forces all of us to subsidize content we don’t want — and that, in this case, is actually undermining democracy.

Last week Reuters uncorked the results of a massive investigation into the tangled relationship between the two companies. Reporter John Shiffman, delving deep into court records, showed that OAN’s 2013 launch came at AT&T’s instigation and that the telecom giant’s continuing patronage is responsible for some 90% of OAN’s revenues.

“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” OAN founder Robert Herring Sr. said of AT&T executives during a 2019 deposition. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”

OAN first came to prominence last fall, after Fox (briefly) refused to lend credence to Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud. OAN and another far-right cable net, Newsmax, soared in the ratings by embracing Trump’s falsehoods. Today both networks, along with Fox, have positioned themselves as firehoses of misinformation and disinformation about the election, the Jan. 6 insurrection and COVID-19.

At a time when the reach of even small media outlets can greatly exceed their core audience through amplification on Facebook and other social networks, what OAN tells its audience matters a great deal.

“OAN’s television reach may not be vast: Most Americans won’t encounter it when they turn on their TV,” writes Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “But its website’s offerings very well may show up in their social media feeds.”

But why would a major corporation like AT&T subsidize a shady operation like OAN? After all, high-powered business executives tend to be conservative in the old-fashioned sense of the word — they don’t like taxes or regulations, but they do like stability. The second to last thing a company like AT&T wants is for a Confederate flag-waving mob to storm the Capitol. And the last thing it wants is to be associated with a media outlet that revels in such anarchy.

The answer may lie in our perverse cable television system, which forces us to pay for channels we don’t want and which in turn depends on favors from the government in order to keep the money spigot flowing.

According to Shiffman’s reporting, in 2014 AT&T was attempting to acquire the satellite service DirecTV, and its executives were concerned about whether they might run afoul of regulators. OAN and another network owned by the Herrings, WealthTV, were already running on U-verse, a smaller outlet that AT&T owned. So AT&T suggested that it run both channels on DirecTV as well.

By doing so, court documents suggest, AT&T could allay worries that the acquisition would make it more difficult for independent networks to be carried by major cable providers. The optics of reaching out to carry a conservative network may have been helpful even though Barack Obama was president at the time.

“What we seem to see here,” writes Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, “is that regardless of personal politics AT&T was operating in and expanding in one of the most regulatory-dependent industry spaces — telecom, cable TV, internet service, content — and they wanted more conservative programming because that helps get regulatory help.”

Now, it’s also true that AT&T is a fading player in the cable wars, and that OAN is carried by other providers. So it’s not necessarily a slam dunk that AT&T enabled OAN for the sole purpose of obtaining regulatory goodies from the FCC. But if Marshall’s theorizing is correct, then it’s a good illustration of how our media system works on behalf of giant corporations and against the rest of us.

There is a simple solution to this, which I’ve written about before: breaking the connection between cable services (and, in the case of DirecTV, satellite) and programming. Beyond basic local channels, require that cable companies offer additional channels on an à la carte basis. If you want the Food Channel but don’t want HGTV, you shouldn’t have to pay for both. You could pay only for the news channels you want as well.

Of course, all of this comes at a time when we can see that cable TV will eventually go away as more and more people cut the cord and get all their video programming through the internet. So the problem I describe is one that will eventually be solved on its own.

Yet technologies can take a long time to die. AM radio is still with us, as are print newspapers. Similarly, we may assume that cable TV will be with us for years to come, even as its audience shrinks and ages.

Given that, it makes sense to let us pay only for the channels we want. Such a move would be pro-consumer and pro-democracy. And it would remove incentives for corporations like AT&T to promote dangerous propaganda for the sole purpose of appeasing their regulatory overlords.