Putting 2018 in the rear-view mirror: A look back at a tough year in media

Photo illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The ongoing struggles of Boston’s two daily newspapers. What Facebook should do about falsehood-spreading hatemongers like Alex Jones. The FCC’s latest assault on truth, justice, and the American way. And, of course, our 21st annual roundup of outrages against free speech.

With 2018 entering its final days, I thought I’d look back at what I wrote during the past 12 months. Unlike last year, I’m not going with my 10 most-read columns. Instead, I’ve chosen 10 columns that address a range of different issues, presented here in chronological order.

1. Standing up to presidential power — in 1971 (Jan. 17). With President Trump regularly attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of #fakenews, what could have been more welcome than a feel-good movie about the last time the press confronted an out-of-control president? “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, told the tale of The Washington Post’s desperate struggle to catch up with The New York Times, which had beaten them in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. By agreeing with executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) that the Post should go all in, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) established the Post as a great national newspaper — and paved the way for its later coverage of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.

2. The Boston Herald’s new budget-slashing owner (Feb. 14). When previous Herald publisher Pat Purcell took the tabloid into bankruptcy in late 2017, it was supposed to end in a prearranged sale to GateHouse Media, a hedge-fund-owned chain of newspapers known for its cost-cutting. Instead, another hedge-fund-owned chain with an even worse reputation, Digital First Media, swooped in late in the process and bought the Herald for a reported $11.9 million. The Herald has been decimated by Digital First, although the journalists who are still there continue to do good work. How bad did it get? Recently, Herald editor Joe Sciacca was made the editor of seven daily papers and several weeklies in Massachusetts and upstate New York. No doubt Sciacca will do the best he can. But it’s an absurd situation created by owners who clearly don’t care.

3. The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). Since 1998, I’ve been writing a Fourth of July roundup of enemies of free speech, first for The Boston Phoenix, and since 2013 for WGBH News. (My friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer, writes a separate story on censorship at New England’s colleges and universities.) This year’s Muzzles were especially eclectic, featuring not just bogeymen of the right like President Trump and former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci but also former president Barack Obama and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a progressive favorite. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As the late, great defender of the First Amendment Nat Hentoff memorably put it (quoting a friend), “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

4. Boston Globe owner John Henry expresses his frustrations (July 25). Five years into his announcement that he would buy the Globe, I conducted an email Q&A with the billionaire financier, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. And though Henry insisted that he planned to hold onto the Globe “during my lifetime,” he said he was frustrated with the paper’s ongoing losses and failure “to meet budgets.” Cuts were made in the newsroom and elsewhere throughout the fall. The situation reached a public impasse just recently, when the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the Globe’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side, denounced management for bringing in the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day. The Columbia Journalism Review has described the firm as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.” See more here, including a statement from Henry this week that the Globe is now “profitable.”

5. Remembering John McCain (Aug. 27). On the occasion of Sen. McCain’s death, I republished a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000, when I followed McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina as they campaigned in that state’s Republican primary. Bush defeated McCain and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Regardless of what you thought of his politics, Sen. McCain was a great American and a raconteur who enjoyed sparring with the press. Unfortunately, he seems like an anachronism in the poisonous, hyper-polarized atmosphere of 2018.

6. Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech (Sept. 27). Two cheers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms for deleting Jones’ accounts. He’s not just a right-wing conspiracy theorist; he spouts falsehoods that put actual people in real danger, including the Sandy Hook families and the parents of murder victim Seth Rich. But what have we given up when we’ve turned over our First Amendment rights to giant corporations with their own interests and agendas? Social media has become the new public square. And the public has no say in how it’s governed. These days we are all rethinking our relationship with Facebook. We need some sort of public alternative.

7. Our undemocratic system of government (Oct. 10). When the founders wrote the Constitution, they gave us a republic, believing that the will of the majority should be reflected by and tempered through the wisdom of men of their own social and intellectual class. What they did not believe was that the minority should govern the majority — but that’s what we have today. Thanks to a system that favors smaller states, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court despite being supported by far fewer voters than their Democratic opponents. Reform is long overdue.

8. What ails local journalism? (Nov. 12). Probably my favorite topic, and one I’ve turned to on several occasions during the past few years. I decided to highlight this particular column because I used it to concentrate not on the familiar supply side of the crisis (greedy corporate newspaper owners, a diminishing ad market, and technological changes) but on the demand side. In other words, do people really care enough about what is going on in their local communities? And if they don’t, how can local news organizations survive? We need a crash course in civic literacy. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place in city hall unless they understand why it matters.

9. The FCC targets community access TV (Nov. 28). Having already destroyed net neutrality despite an outpouring of public protest, the FCC is now going after a vital source of information at the local level: community access television, the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY news reports. Under a rule change proposed by the telecommunications industry, local cable providers would be able to deduct the cost of funding public access from the fees they pay to cities and towns. As Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television, told me, “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe.’” U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, among others, is trying to protect funding for local access, but FCC chair Ajit Pai has shown little inclination to act in the public interest.

10. My evening with Rachel and Sean (Dec. 6). With news about the Mueller investigation reaching one of its periodic crescendos, I decided to spend an evening watching the two top-rated cable news programs: Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and Sean Hannity’s on Fox News. And though I found the liberal Maddow to be considerably more respectful of actual facts than Hannity, a conspiracy-minded Trump sycophant, I came away thinking that both are contributing to the polarization that is tearing us apart. In nearly 40 years we’ve gone from “And that’s the way it is” to “And here’s the way we will reinforce your pre-existing prejudices.” What a loss.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2019.

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