By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Author: Dan Kennedy Page 3 of 20

It’s James Comey redux as special counsel Hur clears (and slimes) President Biden

Special counsel Robert Hur. Photo (cc) 2021 by Maryland GovPics.

It’s just incredible that we’re dealing with James Comey redux. I’m sure you remember his efforts to tank Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. He cleared her of criminal wrongdoing over “her emails” and then proceeded to trash her anyway, going far beyond his mandate. Then he reopened the investigation just days before the election only to shut it down again and say, Never mind.

Well, special counsel Robert Hur just did the same thing to President Biden — announcing that Biden committed no crime in his handling of classified information but then gratuitously adding that the president is “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” Prosecutors either charge or they don’t charge. Other than that, their job is to shut up. It was grotesquely unethical for Hur, a Trump-appointed former U.S. attorney, to excoriate Biden right after he’d exonerated him.

We’ll be dealing with the aftermath of Hur’s unethical actions for the rest of the campaign. Meanwhile, I urge you to read this Josh Marshall commentary, which provides some much-needed perspective. Marshall writes:

There’s no crying in baseball. Entirely justified outrage from Biden supporters won’t counter whatever damage these comments will have. The White House will need to get Biden in front of interviewers, where he actually does quite well, and in widely seen venues, to counter it. It’s really as simple as that.

Biden started that process Thursday evening with a contentious news conference in which he vigorously defended himself — and, uh, confused Egypt with Mexico. Look, this guy has been a fumble-mouth for his entire career, and not just because he has a stuttering problem. But in terms of media perceptions, there’s a big difference between blurting out such stuff when you’re 40 and when you’re 80.

And never mind that his opponent is nearly as old, appears to be suffering from dementia, and is an insurrectionist authoritarian besides.

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A billionaire owner is fine as long as it’s the right billionaire

I’ve been defending billionaire media owners of late, noting that, despite the recent backlash, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and others are far better off for being owned by the ultra-wealthy than they otherwise would be. So let me recommend Richard J. Tofel’s latest post about an owner who is unfortunately turning into a glaring exception — Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is currently in the process of dismanting the Los Angeles Times. Tofel writes:

What has already happened in LA — and the worst for the Times is likely ahead, as it’s hard to see how the paper hasn’t now been launched into a downward spiral — is not so much a refutation of the notion that rich people can save important publications as a reminder that it matters which rich people are involved.


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Laura Pappano tells us about her book covering public schools and parent activism

Laura Pappano, a Quincy Patriot Ledger reporter from 1986-1992, talks about her book “School Moms” at a launch party at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg talks with Laura Pappano, an award-winning journalist who has written about education for more than 30 years. Laura has a new book out from Beacon Press. The title is “School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education.” By the way, Beacon also published our book, “What Works in Community News.” Ellen and I recorded our segments separately because Ellen was traveling. So don’t worry, we’re not breaking up.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a philanthropic gift from Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, that is designed to cover full tuition for many graduate students in journalism at City University of New York. That’s good news for students wondering whether to take on $50,000 or more in tuition debt to get a master’s degree in journalism at a private university. Craigslist destroyed the classified ad market, but Newmark continues to make his mark as a philanthropist.

I offer two cheers for billionaire newspaper ownership. With the news business dealing with a difficult round of layoffs, a number of media observers have jumped to the conclusion that billionaire owners are not the solution to what ails journalism. Well, of course they aren’t. No one ever said otherwise. But the record shows that civic-minded ownership by wealthy owners has proven to be a workable solution to the local news crisis in several cities.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A funding dispute in Baltimore highlights a challenge over nonprofit news and racial equity

Tracie Powell at the 2019 Knight Foundation Media Forum. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

My reporting and podcast partner Ellen Clegg has published a first-rate analysis for our What Works website about a dispute over nonprofit news funding in Baltimore, relating it to her work in Memphis, where she wrote about MLK50, a small project with Black leadership, and the Daily Memphian, a large, well-funded, mostly white website.

In Baltimore, there’s a similar dispute taking place between the Beat and the Banner, the latter a digital publication launched by hotel mogul Stewart Bainum and intended as a comprehensive replacement for the venerable Baltimore Sun, which has fallen on hard times. Ellen takes note of a piece written for Poynter Online by Tracie Powell of the Pivot Fund about a huffy tweet posted by David Simon, best known for his work on “The Wire,” in which he accused the Beat of a racially based shakedown when a Beat collaborator tagged him in a fundraising tweet.

It’s complicated, so read Ellen’s post, in which she also recounts an eye-opening (and jaw-dropping) conversation she had with a white media type in Memphis.

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The Globe portrays GBH News as an operation beset by turmoil and toxicity

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Early this morning, The Boston Globe published an in-depth story documenting turmoil at GBH News, the local operation at the public media giant that encompasses television, radio and digital. The article, by Mark Shanahan, largely focuses on what some (but not all) employees describe as a toxic workplace culture and hostility toward “old white men.”

The leaders who come under criticism in Shanahan’s reporting are general manager Pam Johnston and executive editor Lee Hill, both of whom apologized to the staff after an internal investigation found, as Shanahan writes, that “senior managers made inappropriate comments about employees’ race, age, and gender by referring to ‘old white men’ when discussing newsroom diversity.” (Johnston turned down Shanahan’s request for an interview, but Ellen Clegg and I hosted her on our “What Works” podcast back in March 2022.)

The two most outspoken voices in the story belong to Jim Braude, co-host of GBH Radio’s “Boston Public Radio,” and Callie Crossley, host of “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley” and cohost of “The Culture Show,” both of which are radio programs.

“People fear for their jobs,” Braude, who’s white, told the Globe, adding: “People testified about mistreatment. Much of it was confirmed. No one was held responsible. Now people have to report to the same person they testified against and pray their supervisor doesn’t know they did.”

Crossley, who’s Black, has a very different view. “Bias, bullying, and intimidation cannot be tolerated, that’s absolutely correct,” she’s quoted as saying. “But I want to be clear: That. Did. Not. Happen. Here.” She also offers some context, saying, “People assume there’s a higher level of civility at public media stations, but I want to correct that. People may assume that based on ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ but newsrooms in public radio are exactly the same as they are anyplace else.”

There’s much more to the story, including angst over falling ratings, some good news on the digital side, and quotes from GBH’s newish chief executive, Susan Goldberg, that everyone is “moving on.” If you care about GBH and public media in general, I urge you to read it.

Beyond that, I really can’t say much. If you’re reading this, you probably know that I was part of GBH News for many years, mainly as a panelist on “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” throughout its entire run, from 1998 to 2021, but also as a weekly columnist for the website (a stint I ended in 2022) and an occasional guest on radio. I’m also friends with a number of current and former GBH folks.

Shanahan appears to have done an excellent job of bringing GBH’s internal problems into the open, where they belong (remember, this is public media), and I wish the station well in moving beyond this.

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Talking about local news at BU

I’ll be taking part in a webinar on “Saving Local News” on Wednesday, Feb. 14, from 3 to 4 p.m., sponsored by the Boston University Alumni Association. (That’s not why I got invited, but I actually did earn my master’s in American history from BU way back in 1983.)

The other panelists: Sarabeth Berman, CEO of the American Journalism Project; Karen Rundlet, CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News; and Daniela Melo, a BU faculty member and co-founder of The New Bedford Light. Moderating will be former Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, chair of BU’s Journalism Department. You can register here.

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An Oklahoma Republican proposes regulation — and humiliation — for the press

Republican state Sen. Nathan Dahm of Oklahoma. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Journalism is not a profession. As I tell my students, a profession has enforceable credentials and codes of ethics, often regulated by the government. You need a license to practice medicine or the law, or even to cut hair. But the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” ensures that anyone can practice journalism, whether it be a neighborhood gadfly with a Facebook page or a well-paid Washington reporter.

Finally, though, an Oklahoma state senator proposes to professionalize journalism and bestow upon us the dignity that we deserve. According to Graycen Wheeler, a Report for America corps member writing for the public radio station KOSU, State Sen. Nathan Dahm, a Republican, recently unveiled a bill that would require anyone working for a news organization to undergo a criminal background check and regular drug tests, and to obtain a license from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Reporters would also need $1 million in liability insurance and would be required to sit through eight hours of “safety training” offered by PragerU, a notorious right-wing education outfit.

Oh, and lest I forget, stories would have to be accompanied by the following language: “Warning: This entity is known to provide propaganda. Consuming propaganda may be detrimental to your health and health of the republic.” The bill, in case you were wondering, is called the Common Sense Freedom of Press Control Act, which certainly has a nice Orwellian ring to it.

Dahm, I should note, is also chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party. And as Walter Einenkel writes at Daily Kos, the legislation may stand little chance of passing, but it’s of a piece with other efforts in Oklahoma to ban books and to “target students who identify as ‘furries,’ ostensibly creating legislation based on debunked right-wing urban legends.”

The Oklahoma bill has raised eyebrows across the country — including in The Enterprise of Bourne, Massachusetts, where an unsigned editorial by editor Calli Remillard puts it this way: “We cannot say whether or not actually passing and implementing this legislation is the good senator’s true endgame, but it might not matter. Threats to the American free press are very legitimate and cropping up in seemingly all corners of the nation, and it takes one small spark to start a fire in a political climate as incendiary as ours.”

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At long last, Bluesky opens up

I guess I’ll never get rid of those five unused invitations now. Bluesky, one of three significant Twitter alternatives, has finally dropped its invitation-only model and has opened the platform up to the public. I’ve been seeing comments that Bluesky blew it by opening up too late. I don’t know that that’s true. I’ve put most of my efforts into Threads and Mastodon, and I have issues with both. The future of all of these platforms is very much TBD.

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CNN’s new chief moves to put some news in cable news

Surely it’s a good thing that new CNN chief Mark Thompson is going to replace the network’s morning show with — well, with news.

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Wisconsin legislators consider three measures aimed at bolstering local news

The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Photo (cc) 2012 by Teemu008.

Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin are considering three pieces of legislation to bolster local news that are borrowed from California, New Jersey and a federal proposal that hit a dead end several years ago. Erin McGroarty of The Cap Times breaks down the Local Journalism Package:

• One bill would fund 25 journalists to be placed in local newsrooms across the state. The reporting fellows would be chosen by University of Wisconsin journalism professors and outside experts, and would be paid a $40,000 salary for a year. This bears some resemblance to a program at UC Berkeley, where a $25 million appropriation is paying for reporting fellows to work at news organizations that cover underserved communities for five years.

• A proposed Wisconsin Civic Information Consortium would award grants aimed at “addressing communities’ information needs, bolstering media literacy and civic engagement, and supporting access to high-quality, consistent local journalism, especially among underserved communities.” The bill appears to be based on the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which has awarded some $5.5 million to support 81 news and information projects over the past several years.

• Wisconsin residents would be able to claim a tax credit for up to $250 in annual subscription fees to local news outlets. Several years ago such a provision was part of a federal bill that also included tax credits for local advertisers and for publishers who hired and retained journalists. That bill went nowhere, but Congress is currently considering a new version that includes the advertiser and publishers credits but not the subscriber credits.

All in all, the Wisconsin measures are modest steps that could help ease the local news crisis, although they are no substitute for the hard work of news entrepreneurs on the ground. With Congress seemingly unable to do much of anything constructive, it’s encouraging to see some leadership at the state level.

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