Reading the Declaration of Independence with Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

One of my favorite Fourth of July traditions is reading the Declaration of Independence in The Boston Globe. Last year I added to that Frederick Douglass’ great 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Having just read it again, I was struck by the extent to which the speech summarizes some of the most important themes of Douglass’ public mission, as laid out in David W. Blight’s 2018 biography: his belief that the Constitution was, at root, an anti-slavery document, a view that was far from universal among his fellow Abolitionists; his hatred for the hypocrisy of the American church’s embrace of slavery; and his fundamental optimism, on display in the opening section, in which he talks about believing the country could change because it was still so young.

Then there is this great passage, which comes about halfway through:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Read it. Slavery may be part of the past. But at this moment of heightened attention to racism and how it continues to affect the lives of Black Americans, Douglass’ speech takes on new relevance.

And don’t miss this video of Douglass’ descendants reading parts of his speech.

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Globe editor Brian McGrory addresses diversity in the newsroom and in coverage

This past Wednesday, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sent a long memo to his staff about steps the Globe will take to respond to issues of race and equity — both in the paper’s coverage and the diversity of its newsroom.

So far, at least, the Globe has been able to avoid the sort of public turmoil over race that the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other news organizations, have experienced. But the Globe has long suffered from a lack of people of color in leadership positions. The last ranking Black editor, Greg Moore, left for The Denver Post in 2002 several months after losing out on the top position to Marty Baron. (The Globe’s opinion pages are led by Bina Venkataraman, who is Indian American.)

A couple of other points. First, although McGrory sent this out on Wednesday, no one leaked it to me until late Thursday. I don’t know the outcome of the Thursday presentation McGrory refers to. If someone at the Globe would like to send something along, I’d love to see it. I’d consider publishing an anonymous report as long as I knew who it was from.

Second, toward the end McGrory mentions wanting the Globe to adopt what amounts to a “right to be forgotten” for people who’ve been charged or even convicted of minor crimes. This sounds like an excellent idea as long as news stories aren’t going to be deleted from the archives.

Before the web, print editions soon disappeared into microfilm collections that were virtually impossible to search, which meant that the sort of minor incidents McGrory is referring to could not be easily found by, say, prospective employers. We need some way of returning to those days of semi-privacy without destroying the historical record.

What follows is the full text of McGrory’s memo.

Updates and plans

Hey all,

We’ll start with a request: Everyone should do everything possible to attend Thursday’s presentation of the company’s inclusion council. You’ve received an invitation under separate cover for an 11 a.m. Zoom call. The group will share findings and insights that may be hard to hear, but are vitally important to know, so I’d urge you all to participate.

Beyond that, we agreed at our town meeting a few weeks back that discussions about race, even and especially discussions involving deeply uncomfortable truths, are utterly vital. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have had a good number of one-on-one conversations and small group discussions with people in the room, all of which have been eye-opening to the point of being invaluable. While all these exchanges are important, they are but a start. The real marker of this moment will be the actions that we take. So here, I’d like to outline some of the plans for the newsroom going forward. They are not the final word. They are a starting point, something that will ideally serve as our foundation for durable progress.

Recent assignments

In terms of our coverage, some key assignments have already been made and are worth sharing with you now. We launched a criminal justice team to look at the underlying racism in law enforcement that has served as the tipping point in the protests and calls for action. About two weeks old, it’s already had remarkable impact with stories on outrageously high overtime payments and ballooning payrolls, police officers on the streets despite numerous civilian complaints, a T officer who quietly resigned after abusing a homeless man, the acquisition by Boston Police of more miltary-style equipment, and clear-eyed looks at the push to defund. There is much more on the way. That team includes Milton Valencia, Vernal Coleman, Evan Allen, Tonya Alanez, Andrew Ryan, and Evan Allen, with strong assists from Dugan Arnett, Laura Crimaldi, and Danny McDonald. It’s led by Brendan McCarthy and Nestor Ramos, in a pitch-perfect example of cross-department collaboration. We are past time giving Boston Police and other law enforcement the scrutiny they warrant; this team is already addressing that.

If we focus only on criminal justice, we have failed in our mission to address core issues of racial inequality in and around Boston, one of the most unequal places on the planet. This, as we’ve discussed for years, should be a part of everyone’s beat, whether you cover the environment, the arts, sports, transportation, retail, or real estate. It’s especially vital in primary education, where society blithely accepts systems that are profoundly unequal. We have a strong education team already in place. Naomi Martin will join it, and the indefatigable Felicia Gans will also play a pivotal role ramping up the digital presence as part of her broader portfolio. Felice Belman will now help editor Sarah Carr with oversight.

In addition, we’ve asked Deanna Pan, Zoe Greenberg, Dasia Moore, and Jenee Osterheldt to focus a good part of their time and creative energy on broader racial and social injustice issues, including that wide space where race and COVID collide. And our business staff will remain focused on the epic economic injustices that are prevalent in this region.

Before, during, and after the recent town meeting, many colleagues have been forthright and generous with their insights and ideas. Not surprisingly, they’ve been really thoughtful — and really appreciated. Many of the plans below are pulled from these conversations, discussions with senior editors, and feedback from smaller groups. Again, there should and will be more to come.

• Cover the neighborhoods of color in and around Boston with more intensity — the culture, the economics, the challenges, the triumphs, the people, while also looking at broader stories about city life. We would assign at least one but likely more reporters to it, with strong editing guidance. We would also look for partnerships and innovative ways to get information to residents.

• Promote and/or hire Black editors and other editors of color to significant roles, including, but by no means limited to, the masthead. This is of paramount importance.

• Require a staff-wide work audit for racial representation. Each reporter, photographer, columnist, producer, and editor will be given the necessary time to look back six months and assess their work through a racial lens — how many people of color were subjects, how many were quoted as experts, how many were depicted in photographs and videos, and in what fashion?
Likewise, we’ll go through home pages and print section fronts, as well as the magazine, to see how often and in what ways we depicted Black people and other people of color.

This exercise is not meant to embarrass or penalize anyone. It’s to learn from our own work and create awareness of what we need to do. We’ll figure out a meaningful way to share the broader results.

Meantime, it is of the utmost importance for everyone to include a diverse range of voices in stories and to develop sources who don’t look like you. Jenee has worked up a strong list of Black sources to share, with an assist from Adrian [Walker] and Yvonne Abraham, to help people get started.

• We’ve had important success hiring star journalists of color over the past couple of years, but we are nowhere near where we want or need to be. We’ll redouble our efforts to make the newsroom more diverse, with a dual focus on retention and hiring.

• Make sure we dedicate the right resources to cover law enforcement agencies as a key part of our regular and ongoing coverage.

Internal changes

• Reframe our summer internship program, beginning in 2021, to a diversity internship and training program in which all participants will be students or recent graduates of color.

• Mandate that a specific proportion of our co-ops are students of color.

• Work with the Guild to amend the newsroom’s ethics policy to allow for participation in Black Lives Matter rallies by staffers.

• Form a newsroom advisory council to weigh in on coverage and initiatives that involve race issues.

• Explore outside funding for a training program for early-career journalists of color, in partnership with universities, nonprofits, and possibly other news organizations. This program would allow for the hiring of journalists for a predetermined tenure at the Globe involving intensive training, mentorship, and meaningful work while they are here.

One more

• Launch a ‘right to forget’ initiative that allows people to appeal their presence in a story from the Globe archives and ask for it to be de-linked from search engines. This includes, but is not limited to, someone charged and even convicted of non-violent crimes. Our journalism was never meant to be a permanent obstacle to someone’s success, with the worst decisions and moments in regular people’s lives accessible by a few keystrokes for the rest of time. This will be a complicated endeavor, involving a small committee and imperfect judgments, but it will be worthwhile.

There will undoubtedly be additional measures. And we will also be working closely in the newsroom with ReadySet, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm that has been smartly engaged by the Globe’s inclusion council to help the entire organization.

As tends to happen in this business, we find ourselves at the intersection of opportunity and responsibility. It’s on all of us to make the most of it and to have the strongest impact, meaning we have much work to do in the weeks ahead.

Please keep reaching out with your thoughts, insights, and ideas.

Brian

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Why we should be concerned about a judge’s decision to censor Mary Trump’s book

Now that a temporary restraining order stopping President Donald Trump’s niece from publishing her tell-all book has been overturned, I want to briefly touch on why we all ought to be worried that the order was issued in the first place.

According to The Daily Beast, Hal Greenwald, a New York State judge, “ordered Mary Trump and Simon & Schuster to appear before him on July 10 — and barred them from disseminating her book,” titled “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.”

But under longstanding precedent first set forth in the Supreme Court case of Near v. Minnesota (1931), prior restraint can be invoked only if publication would result in a serious breach of national security (a hurdle the government was not able to meet even in the Pentagon Papers case), or if the material in question meets the legal definition of obscenity or would incite violence.

This is not to say that the First Amendment offers Mary Trump blanket protection. It’s very possible that she could be found to have violated a binding non-disclosure agreement, as the president argues. But in order not to run afoul of the First Amendment, legal remedies would have to come after publication.

By acting as he did, Judge Greenwald elevated a family dispute to the level of revealing the movement of troops during wartime (one of the scenarios envisioned in the Near decision) or publishing instructions on how to build a nuclear bomb (the subject of another famous court battle over prior restraint).

It seems to me that a reprimand is in order.

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One day, two heartbreaking stories about racism in the Boston area

Two stories about racism in the news today show the heartbreaking reality of racism in the Boston area.

The first involves a 21-year-old Black woman in Groveland named Julia Santos, who was chased and harassed by a middle-aged white man in a BMW convertible as she was picking up food for her dog. Steve Annear and Maria Lovato report in The Boston Globe that the man only stopped berating her after a neighbor intervened.

It’s a sickening story, and it easily could have have escalated into something much worse. Fortunately, Santos reacted calmly and recorded the encounter on her phone.

By the way, the Globe didn’t identify the the man who stalked Santos because the reporters were unable to verify it. But she named him on Facebook, and it sounds like local police are all over the story. Let’s hope he gets what’s coming to him.

The second, by Globe reporter (and distinguished Northeastern journalism alum) Meghan Irons, concerns a Suffolk Law School study showing that Black renters are subjected to horrendous discrimination. Among other things, the undercover operation revealed that would-be renters who identified themselves by names such as Lakisha, Tyrone or Kareem were, more often than not, immediately shot down, whereas those who seemed to be white had no problems.

“In subtle and overt ways, Black renters experienced discrimination by real estate brokers and landlords in 71 percent of the cases tested,” Irons writes.

One of the first in-depth investigative reports I remember reading was in The Boston Phoenix or The Real Paper sometime in the early 1970s. The topic: landlords who discriminate against Black people looking for apartments. And here we are nearly 50 years later.

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The 2020 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 Who Diminish Free Speech

Illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

At a moment of national crisis over racism and police brutality, it is depressingly apt that our lead New England Muzzle Award this year concerns an African American teacher in Milton, Massachusetts, who was briefly placed on leave and investigated for telling her sixth-grade poetry students that some police officers are racist.

School officials in Milton quickly backtracked, and the teacher, Zakia Jarrett, received a considerable amount of public support. Nevertheless, it’s sad and telling that the school administration’s first impulse was to punish the messenger rather than focus on the uncomfortable truth of her message.

Other Muzzle Award winners this year include a judge who refused a prosecutor’s request that he drop minor charges against nonviolent protesters (for good measure, he also briefly jailed a defense lawyer for reading the law to him); the police department in Portland, Maine, whose officers made an intimidating visit to a critic’s home under the guise of what appear to be trumped-up vandalism charges; and a town official in Exeter, Rhode Island, who shepherded through an ordinance requiring that people attending public meetings act with “decorum.”

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra is leaving

Vinay Mehra. Photo via LinkedIn.

Vinay Mehra, president of Boston Globe Media Partners, is leaving after three years at the helm, according to an announcement to employees by managing director Linda Henry late this afternoon.

No idea of what prompted this, but I wonder if Mehra’s departure might help break the logjam between the Boston Newspaper Guild and management, which are bogged down in protracted contract negotiations.

Then, too, the union has raised the prospect that John and Linda Henry are interested in selling the Globe, according to a recent story by Sarah Betancourt of CommonWealth Magazine. It seems unlikely, but who knows?

What follows is Linda Henry’s message, a copy of which was provided to me by a trusted source a little while ago.

After three years with us, today is Vinay Mehra’s last day with Boston Globe Media Partners.

We are grateful for his work in helping to stabilize and grow our remarkable organization and are especially thankful to him for building an incredibly strong and effective Senior Leadership Team. This team is well-positioned to lead our organization and to continue the important work of ensuring that our institution continues to serve our community and our mission for years to come.

We wish Vinay the best of luck in his next venture.

Linda Henry

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Baron was right to stop Woodward from exposing Kavanaugh’s duplicity

Bob Woodward. Photo (cc) 2010 by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

There is a lot to chew over in Ben Smith’s deep dive into The Washington Post, which — like news (and non-news) organizations everywhere — is struggling with issues of diversity. But let me keep the focus narrow here, because Smith leads with a blockbuster anecdote about something that unfolded during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018. Smith writes in The New York Times:

Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”

Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)

What Kavanaugh allegedly did pretty much defines one of the circumstances under which a reporter might consider exposing an anonymous source: he told the truth (apparently) to Woodward and then lied about it in public. And the stakes were high, as Woodward’s story, if published, could have presented yet another obstacle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

But executive editor Marty Baron intervened, according to Smith: “Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and ‘bad for Bob’ to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.”

Among those siding with Baron is Matt Storin, his predecessor as editor of The Boston Globe, where Baron served for nearly more than a decade before moving to the Post. “I’m not in a position to render judgment on a lot of this piece, but @PostBaron absolutely did the right thing on the Woodward issue, supporting any reporter in the future who needs an anonymous source,” Storin tweeted.

I agree with Storin — and, thus, with Baron. Unless Woodward promised Kavanaugh he’d keep his identity confidential only if he subsequently told the truth in public about their exchange, then Woodward had no business breaking their agreement. It’s a tough call, and the fact that someone of Woodward’s stature wanted to go the other way shows that good people can differ on this. But Woodward, pressured by Baron, ultimately did the right thing.

It’s not like Kavanaugh is the first source to tell a reporter one thing in confidence and then say something else publicly. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure most reporters would tell you the same thing. But that’s one of the risks you take when grant anonymity to someone.

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At Whole Foods, a failure of the imagination over Black Lives Matter face masks

A Whole Foods store in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photo (cc) 2014 by Mike Mozart.

The Boston Globe reports that Whole Foods is sending employees home if they show up to work wearing face masks emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” Katie Johnston writes:

After seeing reports of Whole Foods workers in other states being sent home for refusing to take off Black Lives Matter face masks, Savannah Kinzer decided to bring the movement to Cambridge. And, sure enough, when she and her colleagues put on masks emblazoned with the phrase Wednesday afternoon, the manager told them they either had to remove the masks or go home. So seven of them walked out.

As is often the case with such public-relations disasters, at root is a failure of the imagination. How can management not understand that this will end with them apologizing and backing down?

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Trump was losing bigly even before COVID, economic collapse and BLM protests

Trump’s FiveThirtyEight approval/disapproval ratings.

According to a number of recent national polls, Joe Biden has moved out to a sizable lead over President Trump — so sizable that, if the election were held now, Biden would probably win the presidency by a substantial margin, since his lead is large enough to overcome Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College.

What I want to address here is the assumption some observers are making that Biden wouldn’t be ahead by nearly as much (or even at all) if it weren’t for COVID-19, the resultant economic catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Yes, those would be huge challenges for any president. But with COVID, in particular, a compassionate, reasonably competent response wouldn’t have necessarily hurt Trump and might have even helped him. Look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who continues to receive high marks for his response to the pandemic, according to a new Suffolk University poll.

Likewise, the reason that the Black Lives Matter protests represent such an existential threat to Trump is that he’s a stone-cold racist who’s responded by advocating violence and embracing Confederate symbols — and no one outside his base wants to hear that anymore.

The reality is that any president’s re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump has been historically unpopular from his first days in office. Biden’s lead merely tracks Trump’s approval/disapproval rating. It’s currently at 41% approve/55% disapprove, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and that’s right in line with most of his presidency.

Biden may be uninspiring to many, but he’s a consensus figure who’s bound to attract nearly all of the voters who disapprove of Trump. It’s not like anyone is going to hold their nose and vote for Trump because Biden scares them. If you look at the FiveThirtyEight graph, you’ll see that Biden would have been far ahead of Trump at almost any point in the past three and a half years.

The triple threat of COVID, the economy and protests against racism have made Trump’s re-election that much harder. But the dynamic is the same as it ever was.

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Trust is down, subscriptions are up — and the demand for objective news is falling

The COVID-19 pandemic has given a boost to trusted sources of news such as television and online mainstream outlets, but has battered print newspapers for the simple reason that people find it harder to get their hands on them while on lockdown. And though paid digital subscriptions are on the rise, that may be driving a demand for coverage that’s more in line with readers’ political views.

Those are some of the findings of the 2020 Digital News Report, an annual study of news-consumption habits compiled by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.