Doug Jones’ victory in Tuesday’s Alabama Senate race underscores the crucial role that journalism plays in our public discourse.
If The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites hadn’t interviewed courageous women and exposed Roy Moore as a likely pedophile, the outcome of the election could have been very different. And if the Post hadn’t turned the tables on Project Veritas when it attempted a sting to discredit its reporting, the consequences for journalism would have been catastrophic.
If I had a nickel for every time someone predicted the death of the Boston Herald over the past 25 years, I would have — well, many nickels. So I see last week’s announcement by Herald owner Pat Purcell that he plans to sell his paper to GateHouse Media as just one more bump in what has been an exceedingly bumpy road.
Twelve years ago, as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, I offered five suggestions for how the Herald could improve and build a more sustainable business. With the Herald changing ownership for the first time since 1994, when Purcell bought it from his mentor Rupert Murdoch, I thought I’d take a look at what I had to say in 2005 and see whether any of it is relevant today.
There is so much local media news breaking today that it’s hard to keep it all straight. Late this afternoon came the huge announcement that Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who bought the tabloid from his mentor Rupert Murdoch in 1994, was taking the paper into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media.
At this point, we all have far more questions than answers. A friend suggested something to me a little while ago that is worth pondering: Can we be sure that GateHouse will end up with the Herald? Once a business goes into bankruptcy, it’s up for grabs. As I note in my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” the executives who were running California’s Orange County Register took that paper into bankruptcy several years ago with the goal of buying it themselves. They lost out, and today the Register is part of the Digital First Media empire.
Other questions: Although cuts have already been announced, will the diminished Herald be its old recognizable blend of local news, good photography and sports coverage, and feisty tabloidism? Or will it be something else entirely? Will GateHouse keep Herald Radio up and running? Will it honor its printing contract with the Globe, or will it move operations to a GateHouse facility? We’ll learn the answers to all these questions in the weeks and months to come.
Interestingly, for a few years Purcell owned around 100 community papers in Eastern Massachusetts in addition to the Herald, selling all but the Herald to GateHouse about 15 years ago. Now things have come full circle.
No one wants to see hard-working journalists lose their jobs. We all hope GateHouse will keep the pain to a minimum, and that the Herald will be with us for many years to come.
Saturday update: The Boston Business Journal’s Catherine Carlock posted a very good overview Friday night of the Globe’s decision not to identify the reporter who had been forced to resign over sexual-harassment accusations. She also quotes some of the online commentary, including very tough tweets from my former Boston Phoenix colleague Carly Carioli and former Globe journalist Hilary Sargent. She quotes me, too.
If you watch Friday’s “Beat the Press,” you’ll see that I believed the forthcoming Globe story would identify the former employee. I was basing that not just on thinking it was the right thing to do but on some information I’d received as well. So I was pretty surprised to see that the name had been excluded.
This was a tough call. I think Brian McGrory and other Globe executives had two choices, both of them bad. Six months ago, no one would have expected the paper to name a mid-level employee, not especially well known, who had been pushed out over sexual harassment that was apparently serious but involved no touching. But it’s not six months ago. We are all living in the post-Harvey Weinstein era now.
The very same story that omits the name identifies Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) as having been suspended for unspecified allegations. Especially given the Globe’s strong reporting on sexual harassment and assault in restaurants and at the Statehouse, it seems to me that the paper needs to be as transparent as possible about what’s going on in its own house. And if you want to argue that that’s somehow unfair to the former employee in question, I would respond: Yes, in some ways it is unfair. But it’s necessary.
Original Friday item: I just took a quick scan through Boston Globe reporter Mark Arsenault’s story on sexual harassment at the Globe and at other local media organizations, including unspecified charges involving Tom Ashbrook at WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). For the most part it appears to be a fine, thorough piece. But what stands out and will spark hundreds of conversations is the Globe’s decision not to identify a journalist who has been the subject of rumors this week, including on today’s “Kirk and Callahan” show on WEEI Radio (93.7 FM). Arsenault writes:
The Globe chose not to identify the employee in this story because his alleged conduct did not involve physical contact, threats, or persistent harassment, and editors determined it is highly unlikely the newspaper would have identified the accused, or written about his conduct, if this situation had arisen at another private company.
““Yes, we’re well aware that by withholding the identity of the reporter involved, we’ll be accused of a double-standard by people and organizations that are not privy to all the facts,” editor Brian McGrory said in a message to the newsroom from which Arsenault quotes. “I can live with that far more easily than I can live with the thought of sacrificing our values to slake the thirst of this moment.”
Although I can understand McGrory’s judgment given Arsenault’s description of the misconduct (especially the lack of physical contact), I wonder if it is tenable in the current environment. I suspect the name is going to come out anyway given how many people know it. Then again, if Globe executives are convinced that not naming him is the right thing to do, I suppose they’re prepared to live with someone else reporting it. But it leaves me feeling uncomfortable.
A source sent me the full text of McGrory’s memo a little while ago. Here it is.
About three weeks ago, I commissioned a story taking a look at how this and other local media organizations are covering the extraordinary #MeToo movement — at the same time that we’re assessing our own situations and confronting issues from within. It took a while, because all of these stories take a while. Sourcing is painstaking. Accusations are raw. Context is important and can take more time than we’d like.
We’ve done some extraordinary journalism on many fronts of this movement — Yvonne [Abraham], Kay [Lazar], Shirley [Leung], Shelley [Murphy], Devra [First], led by Jen [Peter, senior deputy managing editor]. The list could go on, and there’s more to come. Our standards have been high and meticulously upheld, in terms of what we’ll report and how. Vetting of the stories has been rigorous to the point of painstaking.
Now our story on local media, written by Mark Arsenault, is ready this afternoon, as there’s speculation on talk radio and in the social sphere about a recent situation involving the Globe. Mark addresses this situation in the story, having learned about it because he’s an excellent reporter. But even as Mark is aware of the identity of a journalist who has left the Globe, we’ve made the decision not to publish the name, and here I’ll attempt to explain why.
Quite simply, the transgressions would not meet our standards for a reportable event if they happened at another company. To all our knowledge, nobody was physically touched; no one was persistently harassed; there were no overt threats. We’re covering it because we’re applying an extra measure of transparency to ourselves.
This is not in any way to make light of what happened here. There was conduct highly unbecoming of a Globe journalist, people who justifiably felt victimized, and the potential for conflicts of interest. So the responsible party is no longer at the Globe.
Context, again, is vital in this moment, and it is ever more paramount for the Globe and other reputable news organizations to exercise good judgment in unwavering fashion. There are degrees of misconduct, a spectrum, and we must be careful to recognize it. We’ve been meticulous in bringing this kind of context to all of our reporting on these issues, the things we write and, as often, the things we don’t. This is not the time to lower our standard.
So to answer your inevitable question, yes, we’re well aware that by withholding the identity of the reporter involved, we’ll be accused of a double-standard by people and organizations that are not privy to all the facts. I can live with that far more easily than I can live with the thought of sacrificing our values to slake the thirst of this moment. I’m also well aware that wise people, including people in this room, will disagree. I respect that.
Beyond this, please know that our coverage will continue with all the rigor that we’ve already brought on all fronts. Also know that, even as we believe the culture of this room is in a good place, it can get better and we’re working to improve it.
As always, feel free to drop by or share in any other way your thoughts.
Update: I am hearing the Globe was already working on a story about the situation before Kirk and Callahan went public. Good. Original item below.
Kirk Minihane and Gerry Callahan just wrapped up their Friday show on WEEI Radio (93.7 FM) after having spent most of the last hour talking about rumors that a Boston Globe journalist has left the paper following unspecified sexual-harassment charges. These rumors have been rampant within media and political circles the past few days, but they are unconfirmed. Kirk and Callahan ended the hour without directly identifying the journalist as a harasser, though they managed to get it out there indirectly.
New England’s second-largest city is about to get a new print newspaper. A little more than two years ago, the Worcester Sun debuted as a for-profit, online-only news organization. Founded by two GateHouse Media refugees, the site has been behind a hard paywall from the beginning, with subscribers paying $2 a week.
Now Mark Henderson and his business partner (and cousin), Fred Hurlbrink Jr., are ready to take the next step: repurposing their journalism in a Saturday print edition that will be mailed free to paid digital subscribers who live in the Worcester area. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll be able to buy a copy for $2 at various locations in Central Massachusetts.
Print has been part of Henderson and Hurlbrink’s thinking right from the start. Just after the Sun went live, I wrote about the project for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Though the Sun is clearly a digital-first operation, its founders wanted to capture the value that still exists in print advertising as a way of developing a second revenue stream.
“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” Henderson told me at the time. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there.”
Worcester’s daily paper, the Telegram & Gazette, has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Sold by Boston Globe owner John Henry to a Florida-based chain under disputed circumstances, it later ended up in the hands of GateHouse, of Pittsford, New York, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. Henderson is the T&G’s former online director; Hurlbrink worked as a copy editor and in production for GateHouse’s MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and for a design facility in Framingham that later closed, with the jobs being outsourced to Austin, Texas.
Henderson and Hurlbrink have a tough road ahead of them. But they’re still here after two years, and they have the advantage of being local owners who are part of their community. The best-case scenario is that the Sun will be a success and that GateHouse will respond by bolstering the ranks of the T&G. Best of luck to Mark and Fred.
The tribalism that infects our public debate ensures that the monumental error committed last week by ABC News’ Brian Ross will have little effect among those already inclined to reject anything reported by the mainstream media. After all, members of the Trumpist 35 percent would have dismissed Ross even if Ross had been correct in reporting that Trump ordered Flynn to contact the Russians.
But for those of us who care about the reputation of the reality-based press (to borrow a phrase from Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan), Ross’ mistake at a key moment in the Russia probe could prove enormously damaging. As Jeff Greenfield, one of journalism’s éminences grises, said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” over the weekend, “This is exactly what Trump and his allies want to say: ‘No matter what you hear on mainstream media, it’s fake. They’re doing it to hurt us.’ And this is like handing a sword to the people who want all media to be looked at in that regard.” Moreover, as Greenfield noted, the damage was done by a reporter with exceptionally dubious track record, a theme I’ll return to below.
In an unusual move by any daily newspaper in 2017, The Boston Globe is expanding its Washington bureau. The paper’s bureau chief and deputy chief, Chris Rowland and Matt Viser, sent out an announcement to the staff earlier today reporting that the addition will be Liz Goodwin of Yahoo News. Here is the email in full:
Liz Goodwin of Yahoo News jumped to the head of the pack of candidates for a rare opening in our Washington Bureau and stayed there despite a fierce list of competitors and a rigorous search. Her natural writing talent, ambition to tell big stories, and combination of inside and outside Washington experience made her a perfect fit for our team. She’s deeply dedicated and prolific, and, in the universal judgment of those who have worked with her, a total gem of a colleague. We are pleased to welcome Liz to the bureau in the role of general assignment political reporter.
Liz has been a reporter at Yahoo for seven years, covering two presidential elections and criss-crossing the country to produce features on the criminal justice system and immigration. She delves into her subjects with compassion, wit, and a keen eye for detail. She moved to DC from New York in February to cover Congress. She learned to navigate the halls of the Capitol while bringing her narrative flair to GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare and other dramas of the Trump era.
Before joining Yahoo, she worked as business reporter for the Tico Times in Costa Rica, and then as an assistant editor at the Daily Beast.
Liz grew up in Galveston, Texas, the youngest of four kids, and played soccer and volleyball at Ball High School. She went to Harvard for college where she studied History and Literature and covered student government for the Crimson.
News and storytelling are embedded in her DNA. Her grandparents were both journalists in Oklahoma who also raised cattle. Liz’s grandfather Paul McClung was a reporter and editor at the Lawton Constitution for years (and was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame) and her grandmother Geraldine wrote true crime stories from Texas and Oklahoma under the intentionally androgynous name Gerry McClung. Growing up, Liz (under the watchful eye of an anti-social pack of blue heeler cattle dogs) sometimes tagged along with her gramps as he tended to 150 head of Herefords on the family spread.
Liz’s arrival boosts the bureau’s roster to six people. She will help us deliver more of the original, penetrating, and richly reported news from Washington that demanding subscribers (and future subscribers) are gobbling up on BostonGlobe.com and A1 of the Boston Globe. Please welcome Liz to the Globe and wish her congratulations. She starts Jan. 8.
The guiding principle behind the First Amendment is that we all have a right to be heard. It is up to each of us, of course, whether we choose to listen. But no one — not the government, and certainly not the giant corporations that control so much of our communications infrastructure — may prevent anyone’s speech from competing in “the marketplace of ideas.”
But now that the internet has become by far the most important and prevalent means for conveying free speech, the demise of the First Amendment may be at hand. If, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission votes on Dec. 14 to do away with net neutrality, then the distribution of news, information, and entertainment will become utterly dependent on the whims of internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon. If you want your website to load quickly and be easily accessible, then you may have to pay a fee to the ISPs. And if you can’t afford it, well, too bad.
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally — that ISPs shouldn’t be able to speed up some services that are willing to pay and slow down or even block others. A hot topic for many years, it was finally enacted as a binding rule by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. With President Trump now in charge, though, the FCC has a new Republican chair — former (and, no doubt, future) telecom lawyer Ajit Pai — and a three-to-two Republican majority.
Hypotheticals put forth by net-neutrality advocates tend to focus on non-journalistic scenarios. For instance, in 2004, according to a Daily Dot round-up of net-neutrality violations, a North Carolina telecom called Madison River Communications blocked Vonage as it was attempting to launch its voice-over-internet phone service. The problem, you see, was that Vonage threatened Madison River’s landline business. The FCC, then as now under Republican control, fined Madison River $15,000, which just goes to show that dog-eat-dog capitalism was not always a matter of GOP orthodoxy. In 2011, reports the media-reform organization Free Press, Verizon blocked the Google Wallet payment system so that it could promote its own software instead. There are plenty of other examples as well.
The threat to journalism posed by the end of net neutrality is also very real. Imagine that a major media corporation owns the largest television station and largest newspaper in a given market (now allowed thanks to the FCC’s recent decision to abolish the cross-ownership ban), and that it pays the telecoms a hefty fee to guarantee that its digital platforms will load quickly and play video flawlessly. How can, say, a small start-up news organization compete?
Or imagine a ban on certain types of content — as happened in 2007, when Verizon briefly blocked pro-abortion-rights text messages. As the St. Louis-based commentator Sarah Kendzior wrote Sunday in The Globe and Mail of Toronto:
The threat to net neutrality highlights the reliance on social media and an independent press for political organizing in the digital age. Should net neutrality be eliminated, those avenues will likely become curtailed for much of the public or driven out of business due to loss of revenue. Without the means to freely communicate online, citizens will be far less able to challenge the administration. It doesn’t matter what cause someone prioritizes: The elimination of net neutrality will impede the ability to understand the cause, discuss it and organize around it.
So what is to be done? At this point, it may seem hopeless. The FCC will repeal net neutrality, and that’s the end of it. But there are a few threads we can grasp onto.
For one thing, we are beginning to learn that many of the messages the FCC received in support of ending net neutrality were bot-generated fakes. It’s not clear exactly how many, but Eric Levitz reports in New York magazine that more than a million identical anti-net neutrality messages had a pornhub.com email address. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating, and has complained that the FCC is being uncooperative in turning over the documents he needs.
For another, it is possible that the legal system may intervene and keep net neutrality alive. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu wrote in The New York Times last week that “by going this far, the FCC may also have overplayed its legal hand. So drastic is the reversal of policy (if, as expected, the commission approves Mr. Pai’s proposal next month), and so weak is the evidence to support the change, that it seems destined to be struck down in court.”
Finally, it’s never over until it’s over. Last week Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times urging the public to speak out and stop the agency from voting for repeal. “Before my fellow FCC members vote to dismantle net neutrality, they need to get out from behind their desks and computers and speak to the public directly,” she said. “The FCC needs to hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal.”
Despite all this, it is more likely than not that the FCC will repeal net neutrality. What options will we then have? Perhaps a company with real financial power, such as Google or Amazon, will roll out its own network, with net neutrality guaranteed. All you would have to lose is your privacy, or what little remains of it. Or, as this Vice story recommends, we should encourage the development of local ISPs, including municipally owned systems. (Thanks to the indefatigable Saul Tannenbaum for sending me the link.)
It would all be so much easier, though, if the FCC did the right thing. If you favor keeping net neutrality, what is the best way of registering your views? The FCC website is a maze. But Free Press has started a petition urging Pai to cancel the Dec. 14 vote and leave net neutrality in place. As a journalist, I rarely take direct political action except in matters like this, where freedom of speech and of the press is at stake. I’ve signed, and I hope you’ll consider doing so as well.
The New York Times’ profile of an Ohio Nazi is generating an enormous amount of outrage on Twitter among critics who think the paper is normalizing a dangerous hate-monger. I largely agree, though I would disagree with anyone who thinks it never should have seen the light of day in any form.
The problem is in the execution — in the course of showing how well Tony Hovater blends in (a useful insight), reporter Richard Fausset makes it appear that he believes Hovater is normal in some way. For instance, here is a paragraph that teeters on the brink:
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.
The Times is performing badly in so many ways lately. It’s a shame that it can’t produce a straightforward profile of a Nazi without doing better than this.
Some updates. The antidote to the Times story is The Boston Globe’s series on York, Pennsylvania, by Matt Viser. Rather than simply mailing in postcards from Trump country, Viser has been balancing the views of Trump supporters with those who are horrified by what is going on. The latest installment was published today.
The Times has published a commentary by Fausset in which he admits that he didn’t come back with quite what he wanted. And the Times itself has posted a reaction to the feedback it’s received. “Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” writes national editor Marc Lacey. “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
Finally, Mangy Jay has posted a very smart thread on Twitter outlining how the Times could have — should have — approached a story that clearly went off the rails.
The last word. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post nails it: “The best way to avoid normalizing white nationalists is to report about their deeds, their friends, their families and their beliefs, and to not give up after an unsatisfactory phone call.”