“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” has to be the most ignored of all journalistic truisms. I recently ran across this gem from Nat Hentoff’s 1992 book “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee”:
For the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of something that has grown into a Boston institution: “Beat the Press,” a weekly media-criticism show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) launched by Emily Rooney in 1998.
On Friday night we celebrated with a half-hour retrospective followed by a Q&A on Facebook Live. It was an honor to be part of it. And it was great to see Emily get the credit she’s due both for conceiving of the show and for maintaining its excellence during the past two decades.
There are so many people who are part of the show, and I know that if I start listing them, I’ll leave out others who are just as deserving. You know who you are. I’m filled with appreciation and gratitude for all of you.
Stat, one of Boston Globe owner John Henry’s other media properties, is making a big move. Editor Rick Berke announced today that the health-and-life-sciences news organization is hiring Matthew Herper, a veteran Forbes reporter whom Berke describes as “sensational,” not to mention “supremely talented, versatile and deeply sourced.”
I sometimes describe Henry’s five years of ownership as throwing stuff against the wall to see what will stick. Some ideas, like Crux, launched to cover the Catholic Church, slid onto the floor, though it continues to do well under different ownership. Stat is one of the ideas that has stuck. The project was launched in 2015 with nearly 40 full-time journalists. It’s a bit smaller today (Berke puts the number at around 30), but it appears to be doing reasonably well.
During the past couple of years the emphasis at Stat has been on paid content, a $300-a-year subscription-based model known as Stat Plus. Revenue, Berke told me in an email, is 20 percent ahead of projections. “We’re not breaking even but closer and closer to profitability,” he said. According to Angus Macaulay, Stat’s chief revenue officer, the site is aiming for 10,000 paid subscribers by the end of 2019, and “we’re ahead of that timeline.”
Like Stat, the Globe itself is smaller than it was when Henry first bought it. But Henry continues to invest, if not necessarily on the scale of giving $68 million to Nathan Eovaldi so that he’ll stay with the Red Sox, one of Henry’s other holdings. The Globe is currently restocking its Washington bureau after losing several top people to The Washington Post and The New York Times, Michael Calderone recently reported in Politico. That’s not necessarily where I’d put my money (if I had money). But Globe editor Brian McGrory said at a conference last year that national politics drives readership and paid subscriptions.
In the early days of Stat, there was a lot of coverage aimed at a general audience — and, in fact, stories from Stat still migrate to the Globe on a fairly regular basis. But the paid Stat Plus model means that the site is increasingly targeting health-care professionals. The Herper move sounds like a smart way to appeal to that audience.
The full text of Berke’s message to his staff follows.
I could not be more excited to announce that we have a sensational new colleague: Matthew Herper.
Many of you are familiar with Matt’s work. Over the past 18 years at Forbes, he has distinguished himself as a supremely talented, versatile and deeply sourced reporter with a loyal readership across the health care and science communities. His first cover (with Bob Langreth) was “How the Drug Industry Abandoned Science for Salesmanship.” He went on to write 16 more covers, ranging from a deep look at breakthrough cancer immunotherapies to an early assessment of the potential impact of Bill Gates on vaccine development. This past summer, in one of his most moving recent projects, Matt gave readers an intimate window into the life of Michael Becker, a biotech executive facing end-stage cancer.
Matt also holds the journalistic distinction of having interviewed Elizabeth Holmes and Martin Shkreli on stage the very same day. (That was in their halcyon year.)
For our team of journalistic powerhouses, there is no better recruit. Matt’s interest in revelatory and compelling stories is naturally suited to STAT. He sees himself as writing and reporting from the perspective of a bench scientist, focusing on the researchers who create or study tomorrow’s medicines. He also has a knack for getting some of the most influential names in the life sciences industry to talk with him.
Beyond Matt’s journalistic heft, I see his joining us as a critical step in further ensuring our business success. Presumptuous as it may be, our objective is very clear: to corner the market on smart, must-read journalists writing about health, medicine, and science.
STAT Plus is already growing beyond our projections, and we’re confident that Matt will help us accelerate the expansion of our core business of paying subscribers and sponsors. In addition, Matt will be our point person on the editorial staff as we build out our events business.
Matt’s title will be Senior Writer, Medicine. Like Ed and Damian, he’ll be based in New York. But he has family in the region, and we’ll encourage him to work from HQ as much as he’d like.
Lastly: Matt’s interest in joining us is a testament to our groundbreaking journalism and the business that we have built. One of our biggest draws, he said, is that he’ll get to work with reporters whose work he has admired for years.
“For years, I’ve been saying this is biology’s century,” Matt told me. “Nobody has been covering that giant story better than STAT. I can’t wait to join this amazing team and see what we can do together.”
Rachel Maddow was excited. The host of cable news’ top-rated show could barely contain her glee Wednesday night over the news that President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had proven to be such a cooperative witness that special counsel Robert Mueller was recommending no jail time.
It was a different story on cable news’ second-highest-rated program. Sean Hannity was in full dudgeon over Mueller’s decision to go after Flynn for what Hannity called minor “process” crimes. Hannity instructed his viewers that Mueller had persecuted “a decorated military hero” for the sole purpose of building a phony case to drive Trump out of office.
Two giants in fighting for the dignity of people with disabilities have died. The better known is President George H.W. Bush, whose long list of accomplishments includes championing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he signed into law on July 26, 1990. Here’s an excerpt from his remarks that day:
Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another “independence day,” one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom. As I look around at all these joyous faces, I remember clearly how many years of dedicated commitment have gone into making this historic new civil rights act a reality. It’s been the work of a true coalition, a strong and inspiring coalition of people who have shared both a dream and a passionate determination to make that dream come true. It’s been a coalition in the finest spirit — a joining of Democrats and Republicans, of the legislative and the executive branches, of Federal and State agencies, of public officials and private citizens, of people with disabilities and without.
The other champion of disability rights is retired federal judge Joseph Tauro, who, as Bryan Marquard put it in The Boston Globe, “issued rulings that forced the state to spend millions more to care for the developmentally disabled and to create lifetime individual treatment plans for patients.”
As a district court judge, Tauro presided over lawsuits aimed at calling attention to the horrendous and shameful treatment of the developmentally disabled at our state hospitals. He was involved in those cases for more than two decades. I was especially struck by this from the Globe obit:
In 1973, Judge Tauro first toured the Belchertown facility with Benjamin Ricci, a college professor whose son was at the school. Before letting the judge leave, Ricci brought him to a remote part of the grounds “where there was a graveyard that had no gravestones, just plugs on the ground with numbers on it,” Judge Tauro recalled in a 2006 Globe interview.
“And he said, ‘I know you can only do so much, but do you think you can make them give all these people gravestones?’ I came very close to crying when he made that request. I just nodded at him, and of course I had that burned in the back of my head,” Judge Tauro added. “And we, fortunately, did a lot more than that.”
RIP to both President Bush and Judge Tauro, who dedicated themselves to a life of public service.
The Federal Communications Commission has opened a new front in its war on behalf of corporations and against the public it purportedly serves. A proposed FCC rule that could take effect as early as December would drastically cut funding for community cable television stations — the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY local news reports.
The rule, pushed by the telecom industry, would allow cable providers to deduct the cost of local programming from the franchising fees they pay to cities and towns. According to Eli Sherman of GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local newspapers, groups like Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative lobbying organization, have argued that those fees result in artificially high prices for cable subscribers.
But Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), sees it differently. “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,’” she said in an email interview. (Disclosure: I am a member of CCTV’s honorary board.)
At a time when local newspapers are shrinking beyond recognition, local cable stands out as a vital outlet for meeting the informational needs of communities. Because cable companies are assessed fees to support PEG (public, educational, and governmental) programming on a per-subscriber basis, operations in some of the larger cities and towns are pretty robust. The Boston Neighborhood Network, as the city’s community TV effort is known, even has a half-hour nightly newscast produced in collaboration with journalism students at Boston University.
What’s at stake if the FCC has its way, says CCTV’s Fleischmann, is “the elimination or curtailment of one of the few remaining non-commercial free speech media platforms.” In Cambridge, she adds, that includes services such as training for hundreds of community residents who produce “thousands of hours of hyper-local news, current affairs, and entertainment,” the 27-year-old Youth Media Program, and coverage of local events.
Says Darlene Beal, executive director of HC Media in Haverhill: “Any reduction in funding for PEG hurts the entire community, especially as local news and information becomes scarcer. A funding cut as drastic as proposed by the FCC could reduce PEG to little more than a closet full of old out-of-date camera equipment. By that, I mean that the thriving community PEG organizations that provide media services to cities across Massachusetts will not exist in their current form.”
Despite the threat posed by the FCC’s proposed rule, coverage has been scarce and mainly relegated to local newspapers, although Boston 25 recently took on the issue. U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., recently sent a letter to FCC chair Ajit Pai raising concerns about the rule, writing:
Our constituents watch PEG channels to monitor local government proceedings, hear the latest news from nearby college campuses, and consume other locally produced programming including emergency alerts and directives. Your proposal may jeopardize these important functions. We encourage you and your colleagues on the Commission to ensure that any final decision will not threaten the sustainability of PEG stations.
In one sense, community cable is yesterday’s technology. Local stations are already under threat as increasing numbers of households cut the cord, dropping cable in favor of internet streaming services. Both Fleischmann and Beal say they are working to broaden their funding sources and distribution outlets, posting their content on their own websites, on YouTube, and on social media.
But funding from cable operators remains key. At the very least, local stations need time to make the transition to a post-cable world rather than suffering a drastic reduction immediately.
“We have long realized that the days of cable television, as we knew it, are coming to an end,” says Fleischmann. “The primary challenges are the loss of funding, as well as the need to find new distribution models for programming created by the community. CCTV has prioritized the diversification of our funding sources, yet we are still about 75 percent reliant on cable funding.”
So what can you do? Unfortunately, the FCC’s public comments window closed on Nov. 14. But you can email the FCC commissioners, whose contact information is listed here. Or you can try to send a “reply comment,” as CCTV suggests. Not that we should expect much. FCC chair Pai’s push to repeal net neutrality was successful even though there was a public outcry in favor of keeping the rule, which banned internet service providers from discriminating against certain types of internet traffic by slowing it down or charging more.
Local television is part of the glue that binds communities together. Whether you watch it a lot, a little, or never, you need it. Let’s try to save it.
President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing. Rao’s peculiar obsession with the practice of throwing short-statured people against Velcro walls was reported late last week by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones.
As you might imagine, Rao, a veteran right-wing activist currently serving in the Trump administration, does not claim to take part in this humiliating and dangerous practice. Rather, she has argued on several occasions that dwarf-tossing should be a matter of choice, writing that it should be up to the tossee whether picking up a few bucks in some shady barroom is worth the risk to his health and his self-respect.
Rao explained her views several years ago at The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian legal blog, in which she criticized a ruling in France against a little person who wanted to take part in dwarf-tossing. Rao wrote that it “demonstrates how a substantive understanding of dignity can be used to coerce individuals by forcing upon them a particular understanding of dignity irrespective of their individual choices.” She added:
The issue is not whether laws prohibiting dwarf throwing, burqa wearing, prostitution, or pornography may be desirable social policy. Rather these examples demonstrate that the conception of dignity used to defend such policies is not that of human agency and freedom of choice, but rather represents a particular moral view of what dignity requires. These laws do not purport to maximize individual freedom, but instead regulate how individuals must behave in order to maintain dignity (and in the case of criminal prohibitions, stay out of jail).
The individual-rights argument may seem appealing. But it ignores all kinds of activities that society has decided to ban or regulate in order to protect not just the person taking part in those activities but also the rest of us — prostitution, as Rao notes, as well as drug use, cockfighting, underage drinking, casino gambling (until recently), practicing medicine without a license, and driving on the wrong side of the street. So it is with dwarf-tossing, which not only puts the person being tossed at risk of injury because of the spinal abnormalities present in most forms of dwarfism but also places others with dwarfism in harm’s way by normalizing a practice that should be considered beyond the pale.
I have skin in this game, though I hardly consider it a game. Our daughter, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. My 2003 book, “Little People,” examines the culture and history of the dwarfism. Among the people I interviewed was Doyle Harris, a dispatcher at the University of Louisville and a former official with Little People of America, an organization for dwarfs and their families. As I wrote in the book:
Nearly twenty years ago, he [Harris] and some friends were waiting outside a Louisville nightclub. It was right around the time that dwarf-tossing — an Australian import that rears its ugly head wherever drunk, stupid men in their twenties gather — had first come to the attention of the media. “One of these guys came out — he was a little inebriated — and he went, ‘Oh, they’re going to have dwarf-tossing tonight. Well, let me practice,'” Harris recalled. “And the next thing I know, the guy literally picks me up and throws me out onto the grass. It was not a good situation. It was very demeaning to me. I was in fairly nice clothes, I was looking to go out, and I’m out in the grass, rolling around, getting grass stains and muddy. It was totally against my will.”
Florida, at one time the locus of dwarf-tossing in the United States, banned the practice in 1989. Incredibly, a state legislator proposed lifting the ban in 2011, dredging up the tiresome freedom-of-choice argument. As Angela Van Etten, a lawyer with dwarfism whose work helped lead to the original ban, wrote in The Huffington Post: “Dwarf tossing appeals to a lower instinct in people and creates a hostile environment in which Little People are disrespected and ridiculed. It legitimizes bully behavior.”
Exactly. Yet we now live in an environment in which bullying is not only condoned but indulged in by the president. In that respect, Neomi Rao seems like the perfect Trump appointment. According to Mother Jones, in addition to her fervor for dwarf-tossing, she holds retrograde views on LGBTQ rights and affirmative action and is an anti-regulation zealot. She should not be confirmed. But who will stop her?
Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin once said there was nothing wrong with newspaper circulation that a depression and the return of the military draft couldn’t cure.
Storin was right about scary news driving circulation. The crisis (or the excitement, if you prefer) created by Donald Trump’s presidency has led to a substantial increase in the audience for journalism. Paid circulation has reached 4 million at the “failing” New York Times. The Washington Post last year reported it had signed up more than a million digital subscribers, a number that is presumably much higher today. Audience and contributions have risen at places like NPR and ProPublica.
But hold the applause. The flip side of Storin’s observation is that the improved fortunes for purveyors of high-quality journalism are fundamentally the consequence of national interest in national news. At the local level it’s a different story. Storin’s old paper, the Globe, reached 100,000 paid digital subscribers recently. That’s a significant milestone, but publisher John Henry continues to cut in order to minimize his losses. And a steady stream of Globe journalists has departed in recent months for the Times and the Post.
The situation is considerably worse elsewhere. The journalism business analyst Ken Doctor wrote at the Nieman Journalism Lab last week that the economics of local newspaperscontinues to deteriorate:
The year has already been marked by an unforeseen acceleration of decline in the core local daily newspaper business, both in advertising and in circulation. At the same time, the hushed whispers of a local news emergency have grown louder. There’s talk — both public and private — of the need to raise huge amounts of money in order to address a crisis a decade in the making.
In casting about for solutions, Doctor looks mainly at the supply side, such as initiatives from the likes of Report for America (co-founded by Charles Sennott’s GroundTruth Project, a WGBH affiliate), which is placing young journalists in underserved areas along much the same lines as Teach for America. And there’s no question that such ideas are needed, along with new forms of nonprofit and for-profit funding.
But what about the demand side? Storin’s sardonic observation as well as the success of high-profile news organizations suggest that interest in news has been nationalized in a way that is similar to other aspects of American culture. These days, voters are more likely to choose congressional candidates based on whether they support or oppose President Trump than on local issues. We shop at Amazon, eat at chain restaurants, and write columns just like this one at Starbucks rather than, say, the local library or independent coffee shop. Given the nationalization of just about everything, how many people still care about what is taking place in their neighborhood or their community?
This is not a new phenomenon. Years ago, before the internet became the primary way by which we engage with news, an academic study found that consumption of local journalism decreased among the educated elite whenever the national edition of The New York Times expanded into a new region. After all, it’s hard for the latest wrangling among city council members to compete with the outrage of the day from Washington.
Yet we live in neighborhoods and communities, not Washington, and what happens at the local level matters a great deal. Like other media observers, I have written about the need to bolster local journalism and save newspapers from the clutches of corporate chains controlled by hedge funds. But getting ordinary people to care about what’s happening in their backyard may prove to be just as much of a challenge.
“It’s not that educated people have ceased thinking it’s important to get news,” the journalist Mark Oppenheimer once told me. “It’s that now they feel that NPR fills that vision.”
So what is to be done? These days you hear a lot about encouraging media literacy. And certainly it’s important to help people understand what’s quality and what’s crap, what’s real and what’s fake. But civic literacy matters even more. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place at city hall and at local neighborhood councils unless they understand why they matter.
The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark 2000 book on the decline of civic engagement, “Bowling Alone,” that people who are engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services, or engaging in any number of other activities — are also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.”
What we need today is to turn those machers and schmoozers back into readers of their local newspapers.