Book review: Why listening to community voices could help revive local news

Philadelphia and its environs are emblematic of what’s gone wrong with local news. The area is served by a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a powerhouse public radio station, WHYY, as well as various television newscasts. But the focus of those outlets is regional, not local. At the grassroots neighborhood and community levels where people actually live, journalism is scarce and looked upon with suspicion.

Rebuilding local news in places like the Philadelphia area is the subject of Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust.

Read the rest at The Arts Fuse. And talk about this review on Facebook.

Album #13: Tom Waits, ‘Franks Wild Years’

My earliest exposure to Tom Waits was in the 1970s, when I saw him on television performing “Step Right Up.” He struck me as an obnoxious hipster, and I paid little attention to him for many years.

Then, in 1990, I was browsing through the used CDs at Tower Records and came across Waits’ “Franks Wild Years,” as well as No. 12. I was in the midst of getting over a bad period in my life, and something about “Franks” appealed to my dark side. I hadn’t heard any of the songs. Maybe I had read something about it.

It proved to be a smart decision. “Franks Wild Years,” which came out in 1987, was the soundtrack for a play that disappeared not long after its debut. It features outrageous percussion, a pump organ that sounds like something you’d hear on a 1930s radio drama, accordion, sound effects (including a rooster that, as I later learned, turns up on just about every Waits album) and Waits’ otherworldly singing, with seemingly a different voice for every song. Waits wrote every song either solo or with a collaborator; his wife, Kathleen Brennan, shares credits on three and Gary Cohen on one.

At the time that I first listened to “Franks,” I was also reading William Kennedy’s “Ironweed.” There was a certain synchronicity between the boozy losers whose personae Waits adopted and those whom Kennedy wrote about. Waits truly inhabits his characters. He’s also a hopeless romantic, and songs like “Innocent When You Dream,” “Franks Theme” and “Train Song” are suffused with depth and humanity.

After that, I picked up a few more Waits albums. I remember that, sometime in the mid-1990s, WRKO Radio was bringing in guest hosts on Sundays, and I got the call one week. They asked me what I wanted for bumper music. They told me I could pick anything within reason — not, you know, Tom Waits, ha ha. Well, as a matter of fact … I asked for the instrumental that opens “Goin’ Out West,” from “Bone Machine” (1992). It’s pretty straightforward, so I got my way.

And may I just say that “Georgia Lee,” from “Mule Variations” (1999), is probably the most heart-breaking song I’ve ever heard. The bridge will bring you to your knees.

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Will the Globe revoke its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss?

Jake Auchincloss

Update, Aug. 7: I should note that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman has tweeted that the Globe will stick by its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss.

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Update, Aug. 6: In a direct shot at the editorial board, business columnist (and former interim editorial page editor) Shirley Leung has written a column endorsing one of Auchincloss’ opponents, Jesse Mermell.

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The Boston Globe editorial board appears to be getting ready for the possibility that it might revoke its July 31 endorsement of Democratic congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss. The extremely loud hint came in the form of an announcement that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman would sit down with Auchincloss for a Zoom one-on-one this coming Monday:

Many Globe readers have expressed concerns about the candidate’s past statements and campaign finances, some of which emerged after the editorial board’s deliberations. Readers and voters deserve to know more and hear directly from the candidate. In this conversation, Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman will ask Auchincloss about his record on racial justice, free speech, and beyond.

It’s not as if concerns about Auchincloss’ track record weren’t out there. On Tuesday evening, Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, tweeted out a June 27 commentary in the Newton Tab by Bennett Walkes that begins with this rather devastating statement:

While growing up Black in Newton, I’ve dealt with all sorts of racial profiling and slurs. However, no individual has made me feel more unwelcomed, unvalued and unsafe in my hometown than Jake Auchincloss — now a candidate for Congress.

Walkes cites Auchincloss’ support, on free-speech grounds, for the right to fly the Confederate flag — and comparing it to a Black Lives Matter or Pride banner.

Also on Tuesday evening, the Globe published a story by Stephanie Ebbert reporting on a variety of controversies involving Auchincloss, from his remarks about the Confederate flag to his “no” vote on a city council resolution calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump — an inconvenient fact given Auchincloss’ outspoken opposition to Trump. The editorial board is independent of the newsroom, of course; but they read the paper, and this must have come as very bad news.

Auchincloss is one of a large field of Democrats seeking to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who’s running against U.S. Sen. Ed Markey. Maybe the editorial board will conclude that Auchincloss is still the best choice. But it sounds like they threw in with Auchincloss on the basis of incomplete information.

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COVID Diary #10: These are the good old days

2002 photo by Chris Spielmann.

We wedged ourselves between the concrete Jersey barriers that were separating the parking lot from the outdoor dining area and approached a server. “Would you like a table inside or out?” she asked. “Out!” we replied with some alacrity.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Talking about ‘Moguls’ and the future of news

Yikes! COVID hair! (Since cut.) I enjoyed having a chance to talk recently with Eileen MacDougall of “Book Stew” about “The Return of the Moguls” and the future of news.

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Mile Brook, Topsfield

Along Perkins Row in Topsfield, in the middle of an 18-mile ride. This is Mile Brook, looking north.

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How Amazon’s ‘Audible Exclusives’ screw independent bookstores

I don’t listen to a huge number of audiobooks. But when I do, I buy them through Libro.fm, which lets you designate an independent bookstore to receive some of the proceeds. The bookstore I’ve chosen is An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, founded by children’s book author Jeff Kinney and his wife, Julie Kinney. If you’ve never been, you’re in for a treat.

A few months ago, though, the audiobook I wanted to buy was an “Audible Exclusive,” meaning I couldn’t buy it through Libro. Audible, as you may know, is part of Amazon. So instead of helping to support a great independent bookstore, I put a few more dollars in Jeff Bezos’ bulging pockets.

Today An Unlikely Story sent me an email from Libro that goes into a bit more detail on the harm being caused by “Audible Exclusives.” Here’s an excerpt:

Libraries, bookstores, schools, and anyone who isn’t affiliated with Amazon cannot distribute audiobooks that are Audible Exclusives. This means Libro.fm can’t sell Audible Exclusive audiobooks, which means our 1,200 bookstore partners can’t sell them, either.

Audible Exclusives also work in direct opposition to the basic principles of libraries — free access to books, both digital and print. By limiting distribution, Amazon aids in making books, perspectives, and information inaccessible to certain communities and users.

This is predatory capitalism, which is, as we know, Amazon’s specialty. I will continue to buy audiobooks through Libro whenever possible. Meanwhile, think of this as yet another reason to keep pushing for antitrust action against Amazon and its fellow tech giants.

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How Trump’s efforts to ban critical books violate the Constitution

Illustration (cc) 2006 by Bill Kerr.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For those keeping track of the various ways by which President Donald Trump is trampling on the Constitution, move this to the top of your list: his former lawyer Michael Cohen was sent back to prison earlier this month to prevent him from writing a tell-all book about Trump.

Cohen, serving a federal sentence related to various corrupt acts on behalf of the president, was allowed to go home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But he was locked up again after he refused to promise not to publish his Trump book, “Disloyal,” before the November election. Cohen was sprung for a second time by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who ruled last week that federal authorities had violated Cohen’s First Amendment rights.

“How can I take any other inference than that it’s retaliatory?” Hellerstein asked prosecutors, according to The Associated Press, adding: “Why would the Bureau of Prisons ask for something like this … unless there was a retaliatory purpose?”

The Justice Department’s short-lived effort to silence Cohen by imprisoning him was egregious even by the thuggish standards of the Trump era — but it was also just the third recent move by the president and his minions to prevent critics from publishing books about him. The others:

• Former national security adviser John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” was held up for months while undergoing review for the ostensible purpose of ensuring that Bolton did not reveal any classified information. That, at least, was a legitimate reason. But Bolton and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, ultimately chose to defy the White House after it became clear that the process was being drawn out for reasons of politics rather than protocol.

In allowing the book to proceed, federal judge Royce Lamberth wrote that Bolton may very well have been improperly revealing secrets — but that the First Amendment remedy for all but the most dangerous breaches of national security is to punish the perpetrator after publication, not to prevent publication ahead of time. According to NPR, Lamberth wrote that Bolton had “gambled with the national security of the United States,” but that “the government has failed to establish that an injunction will prevent irreparable harm.”

• Trump, through his brother Robert, sought to prevent the release of his niece Mary L. Trump’s devastating book about the president, “Too Much and Never Enough,” by claiming that she was violating a nondisclosure agreement she had signed many years earlier.

Although a lower-court judge granted Robert Trump a temporary restraining order, that order was overturned by Judge Hal Greenwald of the Supreme Court of New York. In a nice turn of phrase, The Washington Post reported, Greenwald wrote the Constitution “trumps contracts.”

Though the circumstances of Cohen’s, Bolton’s and Mary Trump’s books couldn’t be more different, there is a common thread: the First Amendment demands that publication not be prohibited, and that if the authors are to be subjected to any legal penalties, those penalties must come later.

The principle that prior restraint is the worst and most indefensible of assaults on free expression goes all the way back to the English poet John Milton, who in his 1644 tract “Areopagitica” argued against the requirement that printers obtain licenses on the grounds that everyone should be free to print what they wished without government interference.

In stirring language, Milton wrote that “though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Milton also anticipated modern First Amendment law by arguing in favor of unimpeded publication first, punishment (if warranted) after — though his ideas about what constituted proper punishment were suffused with a distinct 17th-century sensibility, writing that “the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectuall remedy.”

In the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two landmark cases that, with very few exceptions, punishment should come only after publication.

In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the court ruled that prior restraint could be invoked only in cases involving a serious violation of national security, obscenity or incitement to violence. Thus was a Minneapolis-based scandal sheet allowed to resume publication even though every previous issue had contained outrageous libels.

In New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), the court upheld the Near precedent and ruled that publication of the Pentagon Papers could resume because the national-security implications were not serious enough to warrant censorship — although a majority suggested that they might be serious to justify post-publication prosecution, as my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate has shown.

In Trumpworld, the revelations of Michael Cohen, John Bolton and Mary Trump are so horrifying that they justify being repressed even more than the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. Yet as President Richard Nixon argued at the time, the Pentagon Papers really did undermine the war effort. Today’s revelations have resulted only in embarrassment to the president.

And it continues. Last week The New York Times reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was blocking the release of a Netflix documentary that depicts the agency’s abuse and mockery of immigrants. The filmmakers, Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, said they’d been told that objections to their work extended “all the way to the top.”

Unfortunately, Schwarz and Clusiau had signed an agreement granting approval rights to ICE. And though that agreement supposedly included “strong protections for their journalistic independence,” as the Times put it, it’s now being wielded as yet one more way to protect Trump from scrutiny and criticism.

There is a school of thought that Trump’s ranting about the media — calling them “Enemies of the People,” threatening to loosen libel protections and the like — is little more than bluster. His two Supreme Court justices, regardless of what else you might say about them, appear to be as dedicated to protecting the First Amendment as their colleagues. And Trump rarely follows through on his threats.

But there is a connection between his rhetoric and his actions: anyone who speaks against him must be silenced and punished — even jailed and put at risk of death, as with Michael Cohen.

With federal troops cracking down on mostly nonviolent protesters against the wishes of governors and mayors, the scent of authoritarianism is in the air. Will we pay attention? Or will we simply move on to the next outrage, as we have so many times in the past three and a half years?

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Album #14: Charlie Parker, ‘Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)’

When I was in my teens and early 20s, there were a number of albums that I would have liked to buy but couldn’t afford — intriguing records I hadn’t heard and couldn’t justify spending the money on. What if I bought one and hated it? I was out $12 or $15, and that just wasn’t acceptable.

So record reviews were important. I discovered several albums on this list from reviews. One of them is an awkwardly titled Charlie Parker double-record anthology called “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes),” which comprises every officially released piece that the great alto saxophonist recorded for Savoy, from 1944 to ’48.

Needless to say, it was not the sort of thing I could pick up on a whim. But I ran across a review by Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, dated Sept. 9, 1976, that convinced me to give it a try. (Yes, I still have it, tucked inside the album sleeve.) Among other things, Palmer wrote:

Parker didn’t just “sing” the blues, he preached them with the fervor of an evangelist; only in the world of born-again church, healing services and holy dances are there adequate analogies for his particular kind of power.

Of the Savoy anthology, Palmer added: “Should we call it the one essential jazz album? The most important collection in American music in print? The most rewarding musical compendium in the world?” It was pretty hard to resist such praise. And the album lives up to the hype.

No one could play like Parker. His technique was unparalleled; the sheets of notes that he’d call forth from his horn sounded literally impossible to play, and by anyone else they would have been. His tone was flawless. And he played with depth and feeling.

There are some odd match-ups on the Savoy recordings, with a number of early songs featuring a neophyte Miles Davis on trumpet and Dizzy Gillespie on piano. Parker must have heard something in Miles that showed what he would become. Gillespie, already a star in his own right, probably just wanted to be there.

Many of the pieces sound similar and are played at a breakneck tempo; you just listen to Parker and try to hang on. For me, though, the standout is “Parker’s Mood,” a slowed-down blues into which Parker pours every last piece of his humanity. It is an astonishing accomplishment. If the Savoy recordings are the greatest American album, then “Parker’s Mood” may be the greatest American song — the mark of a genius who, tragically, would soon fall victim to addiction and an early death.

It’s a shame that so many great compilations are allowed to go out of print, only to be replaced by newer collections that lack the charms of their predecessors. “The Savoy Recordings” appears to be long gone, and I don’t have a record player. It looks like “The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes” is a reasonably good facsimile.

For me, Charlie Parker’s Savoy recordings represent not just the power of music but the power of the written word as well. Thank you, Robert Palmer.

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The Globe’s early endorsement of Markey isn’t quite as early as it seems

It’s generally understood that when newspaper editorial boards endorse candidates, they do so as late as possible in order to avoid the perception that their news coverage will be slanted in favor of the endorsee. So I was surprised to see The Boston Globe endorse U.S. Sen. Ed Markey over his Democratic primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, a full five weeks before the primary.

What gives? According to the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, it’s later than it seems: mail-in voting will begin soon, so the Sept. 1 primary date is merely the last day that people can cast ballots. I’d honestly forgotten that, even though I’ve applied to vote by mail.

In fact, as David Bernstein recently pointed out at WGBH News, the two campaigns are engaged in furious get-out-the-vote efforts already. Huge numbers of Massachusetts voters are expected to take advantage of the mail-in option in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at the polls.

There’s still a dilemma, though. Because Markey and Kennedy will be campaigning right up until Sept. 1, the Globe’s news reporters will have to fend of complaints of bias for more than a month. The editorial pages at a quality paper like the Globe do not affect news coverage (for example), but try explaining that to the general public.

Should newspapers endorse candidates at all, or is that an outmoded custom? I’ve found that my students are dubious about the merits of news organizations’ telling people whom to vote for. But I think it can be a valuable exercise, especially in situations where an endorsement might really make a difference.

In this case, the Globe endorsement might matter. Markey and Kennedy hold similar progressive views, and readers will sit up and take notice that the Globe isn’t endorsing a Kennedy, as they might have been expected to do — although, as a longtime Globe reader, I can’t say I was all that surprised that they went with Markey.

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