By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The formerly independent Bay State Banner

In their wonderful little book on media ethics, “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify independence as such a touchstone that it comprises two of their nine points:

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

Today the Bay State Banner ceases to be an independent newspaper. By accepting Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s offer of a $200,000 government-administered loan, publisher Melvin Miller has compromised his 44-year-old weekly, which covers Greater Boston’s African-American community.

Miller tells the Boston Globe that he’ll still criticize Menino if he thinks it’s warranted. But that’s not the issue. Now, even if he blasts Menino, readers will have a right to wonder what calculations went into that — indeed, whether the Banner was being critical of the mayor just to prove that it could.

The Banner loan is neither unprecedented nor is it the end of the world. Several decades ago the late David Brickman, owner of the Malden Evening News, accepted government redevelopment money in order to build a new headquarters as part of an effort to rehabilitate Malden Square. The News continued to be a valuable local resource for many years to come. But there was a lot of criticism even at the time.

The general, inviolable rule is that government and journalism can’t mix because journalism is meant to be an independent check on government. That’s why recent suggestions to bail out the struggling newspaper business have largely been met with hoots of derision.

Miller may be right when he says accepting the loan is preferable to letting his paper go out of business. The Banner may continue as an important community outlet. I hope it does. But something was lost when Miller said “yes” to Menino.

More: John Carroll has similar thoughts.

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  1. Andy

    In the mayor's race, the future existence of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, is an open question and a point for debate. How will the Banner cover that angle seeing that the $200,000 loan came from the BRA?

  2. HNG

    Your many readers surely must have something to say about the demise and possible revival of the Bay State Banner. Yet, few have said much at all–many are keeping their opinions to themselves. To paraphrase Bork (the English poet, not the rejected US Supreme Court nominee), silence sometimes can speak.

  3. InsiderNegot

    I agree Dan. This important part of life in the city of Boston will be viewed differently now. That is unfortunate for the Banner and its readersship.

  4. ShelT

    However well-intentioned, the appearance of a cozy arrangement between a government entity and a news media outlet is troubling. The Mayor's relations with Boston's black community have not always been smooth, and political cynics might suggest that the Banner bailout could bolster Menino's profile among African-Americans and offset any potential loss of voters in the Asian community who might favor mayoral candidate and city councilor Sam Yoon.A news media outlet cannot be the "watchdog" over government when it is dependent on government officials to take it out for a walk. Any Banner editorial supporting a position taken by Menino, fairly or unfairly, might be perceived as "payback."Moreover, Boston and Massachusetts revenues are woefully below previous estimates, so helping the Banner and other worthy private enterprises should take a backseat to more pressing needs that affect Bostonians, such as health care, runaway foreclosures, and the homeless.

  5. O-FISH-L

    Hear, hear on the conflict of interest problem. Another concern to me is the quasi-public authorities seemingly able to pull the rabbit, er the cash, out of their hats for these pet political projects. After Menino and Patrick started taking a beating when it appeared the Tall Ships event would be totally canceled, the MCCA somehow finds big money to save the event. Now with the Banner about to close, the BRA finds the dough. I'm sure thre are dozens of other similar stories. I mean, is this money just sitting around? Where would it have gone if it didn't go to the Tall Ships and the Banner? Who is auditing these funds? Who can apply for them?

  6. lkcape

    Does anyone truly think that the thin-skinned bully that occupies the mayoral chair will not use his influence to tilt the Banner's coverage of the upcoming election?That's the gorilla in this room!

  7. The Arranger

    The question comes: Is a compromised Banner better than no Banner at all?Bob in Peabody

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Bob: It's a two-part question. Also, does keeping the Banner on life support prevent something else from being launched?

  9. Aaron Read

    The general, inviolable rule is that government and journalism can't mix because journalism is meant to be an independent check on government.HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!This hasn't been true for thirty years, Dan. Journalism has existed so giant corporations can claim they're not actually just as evil as everyone knows they are.On the other hand, would you argue that because Scott Adams takes money from a giant corporation (United Press Syndicate) and simultaneous mocks giant corporations relentlessly, that he is somehow compromised?

  10. sandra

    The BRA and the City of Boston both advertise in the Banner and other papers. That's a source of funds – does it influence editorial content because they are advertisers? This is a constant stuggle that papers deal with – the Washington Post recently selling access, advertisers trying to influence editorial. What about the Mayor's column in local papers (boston metro)- is that a paid for column? Allowing his column in their papers also provides them with better access to city advertising dollars. The Banner has always refused to allow the column to run in their paper. Ten years ago the Banner had a major bank cancel 6 months of ad reservations because of an article that appeared about mortgage practices in the inner city. This bank was one of many banks mentioned in the article. The Banner did not stop writing the stories about this topic just because the advertisers pulled out. This is not a new issue – and this bridge loan will not compromise their editorial slant as the above mentioned issues did not either.

  11. Aaron Read

    Excellent point, Sandra. To extrapolate a little, who here really thinks that the "Best of Boston" awards aren't routinely granted to those businesses that advertise the most with the Globe?Granted, that's easy to dismiss since it's not really "news". But let's bring it back home: if journalism is meant to be a check on government, how come the best journalism out there today tends to come from "state run" (or perhaps a better phrase is "state funded") media like the BBC World Service and NPR?Mind you, I don't disagree with your core point that the Banner must be viewed as compromised because of this loan. What I'm saying is that the concept of "journalistic independence" is so vague to be meaningless. You can always find SOME method of fiscal support that can be tied to a company that you, as a journalist, must cover. Going further, most…arguably all…journalism (or at least all mainstream journalism) has been so bought and paid for under the definition you're applying to the Banner that really the Banner is no different than anyone else.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron and Sandra: You are arguing for the media equivalent of moral relativism. Yes, there have always been uncomfortably close relationships between newspapers and government, starting with dependence on legal ads going back to Colonial days.Nevertheless, I would argue that there are still a few bright lines, and taking money directly from the government puts you on the wrong side of that line.Public radio has managed to do a first-rate job despite it all. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that the medium relies more on listener contributions and advertising than on tax money.A better illustration would be public television. The hypercautious "NewsHour" is almost unwatchable, and we're all aware of the various political controversies PBS has had to fend off over the years.That said, broadcasting is very different from print. Thanks to the FCC and the scarcity rationale, we're all accustomed to radio and television content being regulated, from the Fairness Doctrine to Bono's F-bomb.Having a print medium like the Banner directly dependent on government funds is not the same thing.

  13. Ron Newman

    I did not know the Malden story, nor that the Evening News was once a real newspaper with a real purpose. I can't really figure out why the Evening News and its sister, the Medford Daily Mercury, are still published today. Do they print anything that isn't done better by the GateHouse weeklies in those cities?And while we're on that subject … didn't the Boston Herald acquire its current property via the BRA's urban renewal process in the 1950s or 60s?

  14. Dan Kennedy

    And while we're on that subject … didn't the Boston Herald acquire its current property via the BRA's urban renewal process in the 1950s or 60s?No idea — but that would be an interesting story. What we do know is that the Herald got a new lease on life by winning licenses to operate a TV station and a radio station despite FCC rules prohibiting cross-ownership.The likely reason: Herald publisher Beanie Choate sat on the Pulitzer board and greased the way for John Kennedy's mediocre "Profiles in Courage" to win an award. According to Anthony Lukas' "Common Ground," Joseph Kennedy then pulled strings with the FCC on Choate's behalf.So much for an "independent" watchdog. But just to be clear, that Herald no longer exists. Today's Herald is essentially a start-up launched by Rupert Murdoch in 1982. In no way did the current Herald benefit from a corrupt deal with the BRA.

  15. Aaron Read

    So Dan, if you're acknowledging that there has been, and continues to be, uncomfortably close relationships between newspapers and government…isn't it better when it's right out there up-front and center? As opposed to buried under backroom deals and corporate coziness with politicians?To paraphrase the late, great George Carlin: the reason he liked Clinton was that his bullshit was right out there on display, for all of us to get a good, strong whiff of it.

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: No. Because what you're really asking is whether it's better when government simply hands a check to a newspaper. A little distance is always better.In effect, you are arguing that the relationship between government and the media is inherently corrupt, and that we shouldn't single out one form of corruption as being worse than any other. That's a nihilistic vision that I just don't accept.

  17. Ron Newman

    Dan: The South End area where the Boston Herald building now stands was a residential neighborhood known as the 'New York Streets', because the streets were named after towns in upstate New York. It was cleared by an urban renewal project in the 1950s. Mel King grew up there.

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