From the local-news crisis to Trump’s lies, 2019 was a year to put behind us

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2019 by Seth Anderson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.

These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.

10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson? (March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.

9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.

7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.

6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?

5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head (Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.

4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.

3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism (Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.

2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.

1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.

So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

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 2020.

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