What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Feeling like fall

Biked 23-plus miles along the Minuteman Bikeway, end to end, and back via the Alewife Brook Greenway. Check out the fall colors at Great Meadows. Soon it will be snowing!

Click on photo for larger view

The Wall Street Journal exposes Facebook’s lies about content moderation

Comet Ping Pong. Photo (cc) 2016 by DOCLVHUGO.

What could shock us about Facebook at this point? That Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are getting ready to shut it down and donate all of their wealth because of their anguish over how toxic the platform has become?

No, we all know there is no bottom to Facebook. So Jeff Horwitz’s investigative report in The Wall Street Journal on Monday — revealing the extent to which celebrities and politicians are allowed to break rules the rest of us must follow — was more confirmatory than revelatory.

That’s not to say it lacks value. Seeing it all laid out in internal company documents is pretty stunning, even if the information isn’t especially surprising.

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The story involves a program called XCheck, under which VIP users are given special treatment. Incredibly, there are 5.8 million people who fall into this category, so I guess you could say they’re not all that special. Horwitz explains: “Some users are ‘whitelisted’ — rendered immune from enforcement actions — while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.”

And here’s the killer paragraph, quoting a 2019 internal review:

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

Among other things, the story reveals that Facebook has lied to the Oversight Board it set up to review its content-moderation decisions — news that should prompt the entire board to resign.

Perhaps the worst abuse documented by Horwitz involves the Brazilian soccer star Neymar:

After a woman accused Neymar of rape in 2019, he posted Facebook and Instagram videos defending himself — and showing viewers his WhatsApp correspondence with his accuser, which included her name and nude photos of her. He accused the woman of extorting him.

Facebook’s standard procedure for handling the posting of “nonconsensual intimate imagery” is simple: Delete it. But Neymar was protected by XCheck.

For more than a day, the system blocked Facebook’s moderators from removing the video. An internal review of the incident found that 56 million Facebook and Instagram users saw what Facebook described in a separate document as “revenge porn,” exposing the woman to what an employee referred to in the review as abuse from other users.

“This included the video being reposted more than 6,000 times, bullying and harassment about her character,” the review found.

As good a story as this is, there’s a weird instance of both-sides-ism near the top. Horwitz writes: “Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up ‘pedophile rings,’ and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum ‘animals,’ according to the documents.”

The pedophile claim, of course, is better known as Pizzagate, the ur-conspiracy theory promulgated by QAnon, which led to an infamous shooting incident at the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington in 2016. Trump, on the other hand, had this to say in 2018, according to USA Today: “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

Apparently the claim about Trump was rated as false because he appeared to be referring specifically to gang members, not to “all” refugees. But that “all” is doing a lot of work.

The Journal series continues today with a look at how Instagram is having a damaging effect on the self-esteem of teenage girls — and that Facebook, which owns the service, knows about it and isn’t doing anything.

How to sell newspapers

A black-tailed jackrabbit. Photo (cc) 2006 by Jim Harper.

Now this is how you sell newspapers. I just finished reading Bill Hosokawa’s 1976 book “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post.” Much of it focuses on the early days under the ownership of Harry Tammen and Frederick Bonfils, who bought the struggling daily in 1895 and ran it for its first several decades. This anecdote, though undated, would appear to be from the 1920s or earlier:

While every newspaper has its promotions, many of The Post‘s were unique. Periodically jackrabbits would proliferate alarmingly on Colorado’s eastern plains, decimating what crops could survive drought and hail and threatening the livelihood of the farmers. With The Post‘s encouragement these farmers would round up the rabbits in wintertime drives covering many square miles, clubbing them to death by the thousands. But the meat wasn’t wasted. The carcasses, quickly frozen by the cold, would be sent to Denver in donated railroad cars, trucked to The Post, and distributed free to queued-up lines of the poor. To stimulate the goodwill of ranchers, The Post also offered a bounty on mountain lions which preyed on sheep and cattle. Many a mountain man, smelling pungently of a hunting camp, would make his way to The Post with a dead lion in the back of his truck, there to be photographed claiming his bounty.

Given the proliferation of rabbits in Greater Boston, would some enterprising media entrepreneur here try a similar promotion?

The demise of Adobe Flash broke the 9/11 web. But it’s just the tip of a bigger issue.

This is an important story — not just because some crucial 9/11 coverage has been lost or even because the demise of Adobe Flash means that parts of the internet are now broken. Rather, it illustrates that the internet is, in many ways, an ephemeral medium, meaning that we simply can’t preserve and archive our history the way we could during the print era.

Clare Duffy and Kerry Flynn report for CNN.com that The Washington Post, ABC News and CNN itself are among the news organizations whose interactive presentations in the aftermath of 9/11 no longer work properly.

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As they recount, Flash was a real advance in the early days of the web, as it was an important step forward for video and interactive graphics. But the late Steve Jobs, criticizing Flash’s security flaws, decreed that Apple’s iPhone and iPad would not run Flash. At that point the platform began to crumble, and Adobe pulled support for it at the end of 2020.

Duffy and Flynn write that some efforts are under way to use Flash emulators in order to bring some old content back to life. Adobe, which is worth $314 billion, ought to spend a few nickels to help with that effort.

More broadly, though, the problem with Flash illustrates how the internet decays over time. Link rot is an ongoing frustration — you link to something, go back a year or five later, and find that the content has moved or been taken down. Publications go out of business, taking their websites with them. Or they change content-management systems, resulting in new URLs for everything.

We’re all grateful for the work that the Internet Archive does in preserving as much as it can. Here, for instance, is the home page of The New York Times on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.

But what’s available online isn’t nearly as complete as what’s in print. For the moment, at least, we can still go to the library and look at microfilm of print editions for publications that pay little attention to preserving their digital past. It won’t be too many years, though, before digital is all we’ve got.

A clear-eyed rant about Gawker for anyone who remembers or cares

Ethan Strauss has written a really fine piece on the old and new Gawker. Never mind Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel. What they did to that female college student caught having drunken sex in a bathroom stall should shock anyone with a conscience. I particularly like this except:

Gawker’s bills were paid by its commodification of humiliation. Sure, it helped the brand that they occasionally posted lucid essays and broke meaningful stories. It helped in the way that the highbrow articles at Playboy allowed men of a different era to buy magazines, guilt free. But at bottom, prurient privacy invasion was the core of the business.

Yes, the manner in which Theil’s secret money was used to put Gawker out of business remains troublesome, as I wrote for GBH News in 2016. But let’s not pretend that the world was a lesser place when the site went under, or is a better place now that it’s back.

Northeastern marks the 20th anniverary of the 9/11 attacks

The Center for Spiritual Life, Dialogue and Service held a remembrance for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks earlier today. The service, marking the 20th anniversary, centered on the life of Candace Lee Williams, an accounting major who died on American Airlines Flight 11 at the age of 20.

“She was the best of us,” her brother Corey Gaudioso told News at Northeastern. “There’s never been anyone like Can. We all just knew she was going to do great things — she could’ve conquered Wall Street or something.”

Several of us spoke at the service, including Mary Kane, Candace’s co-op adviser and now an assistant dean in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Kane told News at Northeastern: “Candace was so smart, and beautiful on the inside and out. But I think what struck me most was her appreciation for everyday life. She had this amazing smile, and she appreciated the small things as well as the big opportunities.”

I spoke about my experience as a journalist that day and how the media have changed over the past 20 years.

It was a moving ceremony, organized by the center’s executive director, Alexander Levering Kern.

I wish I had known Candace, who would be 40 and in the prime of her life today.

‘News Matters’ is now available via Kanopy and universities

Recently I wrote about “News Matters,” a documentary that tracks Alden Global Capital’s evisceration of The Denver Post and the rise of The Colorado Sun. Unfortunately, my post came just as Rocky Mountain PBS was about to take it down from its website.

But there’s good news. If you want to see it and you have a library card or university log-in, you can watch it by clicking here.

How public pension funds are helping to finance the destruction of local news

This is Cerebrus, not Cerberus. Photo (cc) 2006 by Andrew Becraft

Public employee pension funds are investing — perhaps unwittingly — in the destruction of local news.

That’s the most important takeaway in a recent report by Julie Reynolds for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Reynolds writes that Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has destroyed newspapers across the country, has financed a number of its deals with the help of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. That includes Alden’s acquisition earlier this year of Tribune Publishing, which owns major-market papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, in New England, the Hartford Courant.

Cerberus’ top investor is the California Public Employees Retirement System, followed by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania. Eight of Cerberus’ top 10 investors are public employee pension funds. “Perhaps it’s time to demand that public pensions divest from shadow banks that aid and abet the aggressive dismantling of the free press,” Reynolds writes.

Cerberus turns out to have quite a track record, and it extends well beyond its role in helping Alden destroy local news. As Reynolds reports:

The firm has been accused of profiting from the Sandy Hook school massacre, because it promised to unload its ownership in gun manufacturers but then didn’t — at least not until its company Remington Arms went bankrupt in 2018. And Cerberus is the owner and founder of Tier 1 Group, the company that trained four members of the Tiger Squad that assassinated and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The role of public pension funds in newspapers isn’t new. CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, owns 89 local news outlets in 21 states, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated papers north of Boston. CNHI, in turn, is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But though CNHI has cut deeply over the years, its track record isn’t nearly as grim as that of Alden. At least in Massachusetts, its newspapers remain well-staffed enough to do a reasonably good job of covering their communities.

In the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck reports that Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, wonders if Alden’s purpose in buying up newspapers is to exert political influence aimed at staving off regulation:

Schleuss speculated whether there might be political play behind these newspaper acquisitions. The NewsGuild president also opined about legislative remedies that Congress might enact to force hedge funds like Alden to be “radically transparent” about their investors. That would allow the public to discern if investors are earnest and market-minded or if they’re bad actors attempting to hold sway over the press.

It’s a real concern, though to date I haven’t seen any signs that Alden has an agenda other than cutting its papers to the bone and squeezing out whatever profits remain.

Peck’s article is also accompanied by a “publisher’s note” that is interesting mainly because it represents one of the few occasions when Alden has deigned to address the way it’s running its newspapers:

Publisher’s Note: E&P reached out to Heath Freeman of Alden Global Capital, welcoming his comment and contribution. The company’s crisis manager responded, post-deadline, with the following remark he attributed to MediaNews Group’s COO, Guy Gilmore: “A subscription-driven revenue model, long overdue payments from tech behemoths including Google and Facebook for the use of our content and the modernization of non-editorial operations are some of the keys to ensuring local newspapers can thrive over the long term and serve the local communities that depend on them.”

This week’s members newsletter: The wayward Times, Otis Redding and more

Otis Redding. Photo in the public domain.

Tomorrow’s Media Nation members newsletter includes some thoughts on The New York Times’ appalling story about Joe Biden’s grief, a round-up of the week’s posts, a Celtics-friendly photo and some music from the great Otis Redding. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.