Why Justice Stevens’ fraught relationship with the First Amendment still reverberates

Justice Stevens

The late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens today is being hailed as a liberal beacon who took strong stands against the death penalty and in favor of gun control and limits on political spending.

But despite his well-deserved reputation as a judge who was motivated by decency and principle, his legacy with regard to the First Amendment is mixed.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

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David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass

Photo from the Library of Congress Brady-Handy Collection

I just finished David Blight’s monumental (750 pages) biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Perhaps a controversial view: It would have been better at half the length, supplemented with 100 to 150 well-curated pages of Douglass’ lectures and writings.

Still, it’s a great work of scholarship, well deserving of the Pulitzer that it won, with deep dives into Abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and emergence of Jim Crow and lynchings. And, of course, Douglass, perhaps the most remarkable public person of the 19th century, and his family.

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Some contrary thoughts on the pending closure of Youngstown’s Vindicator

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I want to sound a note of skepticism over the pending closure of The Vindicator, the only daily newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. The paper is family-owned, and those who have looked at the situation — including Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab and Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal — have noted that the family also owns the NBC and CW television affiliates.

That’s where I think some more reporting needs to be done. It’s been said that the owners couldn’t find a buyer, not even a cost-cutting chain like GateHouse Media. But it strikes me that that would be a dicey proposition given that the old owners would still be able to leverage relationships they’ve built with advertisers for many years in order to crush a paper that they would now see as a competitor.

I don’t know what the union situation is at the TV stations. But I do know that, according to the Journal, the unionized Vindicator employs 144 people. The TV stations could, if they wanted to, add some free web-only local coverage while hiring far fewer than 144 people in order to further put pressure on The Vindicator.

I realize this is a pretty cynical take and that The Vindicator’s business model has no doubt broken down, perhaps irretrievably. But I do think a little more needs to be said about this odd development.

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Some thoughts on those 3,000 lost journalism jobs

The news was shocking. On Monday, Gerry Smith of Bloomberg reported that about 3,000 employees at news organizations have lost their jobs through layoffs or buyouts through the first five months of this year — the worst drop since 2009.

There is nothing good to be said about this. But, in looking over the details, it seems to me that things aren’t quite as bad as they first appear.

First, there is that “worst since 2009” claim. For the first five months of 2009, Smith writes, the job loss came to 7,914 — more than double what we’ve seen this year. Of course, that was in the midst of the Great Recession, a time when the structural problems facing the news business were compounded by economic collapse. The New York Times Co. was even threatening to shut down The Boston Globe, which it then owned. In 2019, journalism job losses have accelerated in the midst of prosperity, which is pretty ominous. Still, things are not nearly as bad as they were 10 years ago.

Second, a large share of those 3,000 lost jobs were at digital-only news organizations whose business model has always been dubious. The Bloomberg story puts the number of lost jobs at 800 at HuffPost and Yahoo and another 250 at BuzzFeed News. Todd Spangler reported for Variety earlier this year that Vice Media had eliminated 250 jobs. So that’s a total of 1,300, or more than 43 percent of the 3,000 lost jobs. Obviously I don’t like to see any jobs eliminated, and I especially don’t like the fact that Facebook’s and Google’s ongoing dominance in digital advertising is crushing free news sites. But in these cases, the job losses should mainly be seen as the day of reckoning finally arriving.

That’s good news — or, rather, the not-so-awful news. The bad news is that many of the other job losses involve local news organizations. Many are owned by gigantic corporate chains such as GateHouse Media, MediaNews Enterprises (formerly Digital First), Gannett and McClatchy, all of which have cut numerous jobs this year. Some are independents, such as The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, which, as Joshua Benton notes at Nieman Lab, couldn’t even find a buyer. Via Brian Stelter, I learned this morning that the weekly Katy Times of Texas will go out of business, too.

As I and others have written on multiple occasions, the real crisis in journalism is at the community level. This week’s Bloomberg numbers are sobering, but it’s important to keep in mind what they say and what they don’t say.

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The 2019 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

With freedom of speech under unprecedented assault, it is heartening that young people get what’s at stake. Two of our 2019 New England Muzzle Awards single out high school principals who tried to silence their students — and wound up being taken to school about the true meaning of the First Amendment.

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Also: Be sure not to miss Harvey Silverglate’s Campus Muzzles, his annual round-up of outrages against free speech at colleges and universities in New England.

Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are the class of the Democratic field

I’m in Toronto at a conference, so I missed the first hour of Wednesday’s debate and the first half-hour of Thursday’s. This is impressionistic, and what seems obvious this morning may look wrong in a day or two. But I thought Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren established themselves as the class of the Democratic field, while Joe Biden seriously wounded himself in his “states’ rights” exchange over desegregation with Harris.

I’ve thought for a while that a Harris-Warren or Warren-Harris ticket might be the Democrats’ best bet, but I’ve been frustrated with Harris’ fuzzy I’ll-have-to-look-into-that responses. On Thursday, she was prepared, offering compelling personal stories about herself and others in response to questions that could have prompted wonky responses.

As for the rest, Cory Booker and Julián Castro elevated their candidacies. Pete Buttigieg was poised and articulate, as he always is. And there at least a dozen candidates I hope we never see again.

The format, needless to say, was absurd. A series of much smaller debates, 20-minute one-on-ones — anything but two-hour shoutfests among 10 candidates with Chuck Todd constantly interrupting because they weren’t complying with his idiotic demands for one-word answers.

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Despite Trump fatigue, the horror of child detention breaks through our apathy

President Trump has worn us down. The Mueller report — loaded with evidence that Trump obstructed justice and welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 campaign — bobs, floats, and then sinks beneath the surface. A credible accusation that he raped a woman several decades ago barely registers. Dangerous rhetoric that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” once shocking, is now little more than background noise.

Sometimes, though, the terrible reality of the Trump presidency breaks through, at least for a moment. Such is the case with the hundreds of migrant children being held at a border detention center in Clint, Texas, under conditions of shocking cruelty, according to a group of lawyers that visited the camp. The children are reported to be cold, hungry, and filthy. Many are sick.

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End of the line for ‘The Take’

Sue O’Connell

No, we really can’t have nice things. Sue O’Connell, the host of “The Take” on New England Cable News, has announced that her show is being taken off the air at the end of this week. Meanwhile, she just won a “Best of Boston” award from Boston magazine for her “stellar guests, tough but noncombative questions, and a real interest in talking about ideas.”

No word on what NECN has in mind, but “The Take,” under various names, has been around pretty much since the founding of the all-news cable channel in the early 1990s. Previous hosts include RD Sahl, Chet Curtis and Jim Braude, now host of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) and co-host of “Boston Public Radio” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM).

Sue, a former colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix as well as the current co-publisher of Bay Windows and the South End News, is a great talent. I hope she moves on to something bigger and better.

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Proposed state commission would study the local news crisis and what to do about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Can government play a role in helping to solve the local news crisis? Not directly, perhaps. But indirectly, government can shine a light on the issue, call attention to worthy projects that might inspire others, and offer some policy recommendations.

That’s the goal of House Bill 181/Senate Bill 80, which would create a special commission to study local journalism in underserved Massachusetts communities. Sponsored by Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, the bill was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses.

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