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The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Illustration by Meryl Brenner / GBH News

The past year was the most tumultuous in our history since at least 1968, characterized by a deadly pandemic, economic collapse and a presidential election whose aftermath culminated in a violent insurrection at the Capitol, cheered on — and, arguably, incited — by the losing candidate.

But that wasn’t all. Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a revived Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets and protested from coast to coast. The response to those protests, and to the movement in general, leads our list of New England Muzzle Awards this year.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Medford trans community and allies protest church’s anti-LGBTQ message

A few dozen of us gathered in Medford Square early Friday evening to protest an anti-LGBTQ sign across the street at the New England Baptist Church. The sign reads: “Male and Female He Created Them. Gen. 5:2. Gender Identity Solved.”

No one was demanding that the church remove the message, which is protected by the First Amendment. But members of the trans community and their allies wanted to let them know that their views weren’t welcome. Both of the major candidates for mayor joined us — Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn, who’s running for re-election, and City Councilor John Falco, who’s challenging her.

A party atmosphere prevailed, at least on our side. Led by the Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade, we walked in front of the church once and then stood out on the opposite side of Salem Street, waving flags and signs while motorists honked their horns in support.

Tiffany Chan of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) covered the rally. The Medford Transcript was on hand as well; I’ll post a link once its story has been published.

That state commission to study local news is getting back on track

The special state commission that will study local journalism in Massachusetts may seem to have gone off the rails, but its work was merely postponed because the COVID pandemic. Rather than issuing a report this August, current plans are to work on it for the next year and then issue a report in August 2022, according to Sophia Gardner of the Greenfield Reporter.

I was among those who advocated for the creation of the commission, and, as the legislation is written, I would be a member. I look forward to getting on with our work.

Previous coverage.

Warren posts video in support of the Globe’s union

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has posted a video in support of the Boston Newspaper Guild, which is involved in protracted contract talks with The Boston Globe. No word on what happened to the Mark Ruffalo video, which was taken down not long after it was published.

A lawsuit against The Washington Post reignites the debate over objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905

The meaning of objectivity is at the heart of a lawsuit brought by a Washington Post reporter against the paper, five of its top editors and former executive editor Marty Baron.

Felicia Sonmez argues that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times reporter and was then banned from covering stories involving sexual misconduct, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy.

Darcy and New York Times reporter Katie Robertson report that Baron has declined to comment on the case.

I’m not going to get into whether Sonmez is right or wrong; that will be for the legal process to sort out. But what’s interesting about this is that her claim involves the appearance of objectivity — that is, she could have been accused of not being impartial, whether fairly or not. This is a largely bogus argument, in my view, as it places news organizations in the position of preemptively giving in to bad-faith critics.

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What’s odd is that Baron understands the true meaning of objectivity, and pursued it during his years as the top editor at the Post and The Boston Globe. In particular, the Post’s fierce coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency was grounded in exposing the truth, not in “both sides” false equivalencies.

Several months ago Baron spoke to Northeastern journalism students and faculty via Zoom and defined objectivity in terms that would do Walter Lippmann proud. “I don’t think the answer for us is to be partisan,” he said. “I think the answer for us is to be independent.”

Citing Lippmann’s landmark 1920 book “Liberty and the News,” Baron said that objectivity is about “independence and open-mindedness and fairness,” not giving each side equal weight. After thoroughly reporting a story, he added, “then we tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned.”

What Sonmez is alleging is that the Post fell into some of the worst excesses and caricatures of objectivity, such as the bad old days when LGBTQ people were somehow thought to be disqualified from covering same-sex marriage, or when Black reporters were regarded as suspect if they covered issues involving racial justice. Surely some of that was at work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s prohibiting its then-reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted an innocuous tweet.

There may have been other factors involved in the Sonmez case. You may recall that she was suspended for tweeting details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault case not long after he died in a helicopter crash. I thought the suspension was unwarranted, as did Post media columnist Erik Wemple. But you could certainly argue that she should have waited a day or two.

In any case, her lawsuit raises some fascinating issues and is well worth paying attention to.

Correction: This post originally misstated the affiliation of the reporter whom Sonmez accused of assaulting her.

Tiny News Collective to provide funding to six local news start-ups

Six local news projects will launch or expand after winning a competition held by the Tiny News Collective — a joint venture of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and News Catalyst, based at Temple University. News Catalyst receives funding from the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute. According to the announcement:

Thanks to a partnership with the Google News Initiative, each organization in the first cohort will receive a $15,000 stipend to help create the capacity for the founders to get started. In addition, the GNI has funded their first year of membership dues in the Collective and LION Publishers.

The projects range from an organization covering education news in part of Orange County, California, to an outlet with the wonderful name Black by God, which seeks “to share perspectives that cultivate, curate, and elevate Black voices from West Virginia.”

Forty organizations applied. Among the judges were Kate Maxwell, co-founder and publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a news co-op that is one of the local news projects I’m following for a book I’m co-authoring with Ellen Clegg.

The Tiny News Collective strikes me as a more interesting approach to dealing with the local news crisis than initiatives unveiled recently by Substack and Facebook. Those require you to set up shop on their platforms. By contrast, the Tiny News Collective is aimed at helping community journalism entrepreneurs to achieve sustainability on their own rather than become cogs in someone else’s machine.

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Jack Thomas writes a moving farewell

Former Boston Globe writer Jack Thomas recently learned that he has just a few months to live. He’s written a deeply moving reflection.

President Biden says social media are killing people. But Fox News may be killing more.

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

With the delta variant spreading and COVID-19 rates climbing in all 50 states, President Joe Biden last Friday offered some tough words for Facebook and other social media companies that are enabling lies and misinformation.

“They’re killing people,” he said. “I mean, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

Biden was not wrong. But despite the enormous reach of Facebook, only one media outlet has devoted itself to injecting falsehoods about the pandemic into the nervous systems of its audience on a 24/7 basis. That, of course, would be Fox News.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Outing an anonymous commenter leads to a libel suit against Nieman Lab

Is it acceptable for a website operator to make use of registration data not known to anyone else in order to expose the identity of an offensive commenter? That’s one of the main issues in a libel suit against Nieman Journalism Lab founder Joshua Benton. Bill Grueskin explains the case in detail at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I know and like Benton, and wrote for him from time to time when he was the Lab’s editor; he is still a staff writer. I continue to contribute to the Lab occasionally.)

Way back in 2008, when the internet was still powered by coal, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover did something similar. I wrote about it at the time. A Haverhill city councilor was caught posting to the newspaper’s website under 38 different screen names. The Eagle-Tribune outed him using information no one else could have known, arguing:

The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.

Two differences between the cases. First, the person suing Benton, former Temple University journalism professor Francesca Viola, is not a public official. Second, Viola claims that in addition to exposing her for comments she made at Nieman Lab, Benton also attributed to her anti-Muslim comments made on another site — and she contends she did not make those comments.

As Grueskin notes, these problems can easily be avoided by requiring commenters to register and post under their real names. But, he adds, “an administrator can’t have it both ways, promising anonymity and then using special access to expose someone’s identity.” I agree — and I remain troubled by the choice that The Eagle-Tribune made nearly 13 years ago as well.

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Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

Right-wing media whip up racist attacks on Nikole Hannah-Jones

The hatred being directed at Nikole Hannah-Jones is shocking — but not surprising. Right-wing media mount phony attacks on her and her ideas and then let their trollish minions do the rest. She tweets:

The coordinated media attacks orchestrated by the right-wing echo chamber are designed to elicit exactly these type of threats and harassment that are flooding my email and social media accounts. They want to make me afraid to speak and do the type of work I do. I will not stop.

Click through for more. Warning: the attack she quotes from is highly offensive.

Previous coverage.