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

Author: Dan Kennedy Page 3 of 43

North Shore art

I took one of my favorite rides Saturday — from Danvers Center along the rail trail and then east and north to Wenham, Hamilton and Bradley Palmer State Park, south to Route 97 and back along the rail trail from the Topsfield Fairgrounds to Danvers, a little over 18½ miles. I also cruised around the Pingree School and took pictures of some of the outdoor art installations. Enjoy!

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“On Your Mark,” by Michael Aldred and Tim Johnson

“Guitar,” by José Criollo

Unlabeled as far as I could tell

“Think and Be Free,” by Dale Rogers

“Fintasia,” by Steve Heller

Not a game-changer

We were at a Worcester Red Sox game Friday night, so we watched George Stephanopoulos’ interview with President Biden when we got home. I don’t think it moved the needle. Biden was neither strong enough to put the doubts to rest nor weak enough to accelerate calls for him to step aside.

Stephanopoulos did an admirable job of asking tough questions while maintaining a respectful tone. As for his repeated queries about whether Biden would agree to take a cognitive test, I was surprised that Biden didn’t answer that he would if Donald Trump would. But whatever.

Biden’s flat-out denial that he’s behind in the polls and that his approval rating is very low wasn’t great, but that seems to be his approach: dig in, even if it means contradicting reality. It would have been better if he’d said, “Yes, I’m behind, and here’s how I’m going to overcome it.”

And let me join with other commentators who were appalled at his answer to how he’ll feel next January if he loses to Trump: “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.” No. The challenge we are all facing is how to beat authoritarianism. The Democrats need to meet that challenge with their strongest candidate, whether it’s Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris or someone else.

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The media, the president and what we should have known about his age-related issues

George Stephanopoulos interviews President Biden in 2021. White House photo.

Right now we’re all waiting to see how President Biden does in his interview with George Stephanopoulos. Obviously Biden has to come off as coherent, and even then it’s not going to stop calls for him to step aside in the midst of donor panic and declining poll numbers. The New York Times and The Boston Globe are reporting that Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey has been telling associates that Biden’s candidacy is “irretrievable.”

Given the terrible position in which we find ourselves, it’s worth asking whether the media should have covered Biden differently over the past few months. My Northeastern University colleague Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times, thinks so, writing a commentary for Semafor that begins:

It’s clear the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable. It is our duty to poke through White House smoke screens and find out the truth. The Biden White House clearly succeeded in a massive cover-up of the degree of the President’s feebleness and his serious physical decline, which may be simply the result of old age. Shame on the White House press corps for not to have pierced the veil of secrecy surrounding the President.

Richard Tofel, a former top executive at The Wall Street Journal and ProPublica, has been reminding us on social media that he’s been calling for greater scrutiny of Biden’s age since last October. Here’s part of what he said back then:

Is Biden speaking more slowly because he’s conscious that his lifelong stutter might now be taken for cognitive frailty, or because he has no choice? Is he walking more cautiously because he knows the political peril of falling, or because he can no longer go any faster? If you think you know the answers to those questions, what is your evidence? I know of very little, either way.

My own sense is that there was actually quite a bit of reporting on Biden’s age even before his disastrous June 27 debate with Donald Trump, but that it was discounted for a variety of reasons. When special counsel Robert Hur called Biden “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” that got plenty of coverage. At the same time, though, Hur was arguably engaging in prosecutorial misconduct by adding his own commentary while not bringing charges against Biden — which, in turn, reminded people of then-FBI Director James Comey trashing Hillary Clinton in 2016 over the way she handled her emails even while concluding she had not committed a crime.

The Wall Street Journal published an in-depth story on Biden’s age-related issues in early June, but that was widely dismissed because of the Journal’s reliance on partisan Republican sources, including former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had previously told aides privately that he found the president to be sharp in White House meetings.

The Times itself has spent months obsessing over what voters think about Biden’s age, which in turn brought about accusations of both-sides-ism and false equivalence given that Trump is nearly as old and arguably more addled as well as an insurrectionist and a convicted criminal who’s been found liable for sexual assault.

Brian Stelter has written an excellent, deeply reported overview for Vox. Here’s the nut:

The national media wasn’t dodging the story: The biggest newspapers in the country published lengthy stories about Biden’s mental fitness. The public wasn’t in the dark about Biden’s age: Most voters (67 percent in a June Gallup poll) thought he was too old to be president even before the debate. But questions about Biden’s fitness for office were not emphasized as much as they should have been.

That’s the third option: The stories should have been tougher, the volume should have been louder.

Then, too, journalists are not unaware of what we’re facing. A second Trump term could amount to nothing less than the end of democracy in this country. Surely there was a sense that as long as Biden wasn’t too impaired, it wasn’t worth the risk of throwing the election into chaos and risking Trump’s return to office — this time as the head of the authoritarian right.

If Biden could somehow make it across the finish line this November, so this thinking went, it would be up to God and Vice President Kamala Harris after that. I definitely count myself among those observers who dismissed concerns about Biden’s age, partly because I thought they were overblown, partly because I feared the consequences of removing Biden from the top of the ticket.

Unfortunately, we’ve got chaos anyway.

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The Boston Globe calls on President Biden to end his campaign

Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

The Boston Globe’s editorial board has just called for President Biden to end his re-election campaign. The paper took its time, which I think is appropriate. But given the president’s anemic response to his disastrous performance in last Thursday’s debate, it’s now clear that someone else would be better suited to the crucial task of saving our democracy from Donald Trump and the forces of the authoritarian right. The Globe writes:

Serious questions are now in play about his ability to complete the arduous work of being leader of the free world. Can he negotiate with a hostile Republican Congress, dangerous foreign powers, or even fractious rivals within his own Cabinet? The nation’s confidence has been shaken.

The Globe is also calling for an open convention. I understand the appeal. But the cleanest solution would be to hand off the presidency to Vice President Kamala Harris. Biden would have to resign in order to do that, and I realize that’s unfair. There’s no logical reason for him not to serve out the remainder of his term, but defeating Trump is of paramount importance. Harris is as popular, or unpopular, as any of the other Democrats being mentioned, and with her ascendance there would be no issues regarding campaign finances or ballot access.

The New York Times is reporting that Biden told an unnamed key ally that he is thinking about ending his campaign. The Times is getting furious pushback from the White House, but how could Biden not be having such conversations? Former President Barack Obama is also letting it be known that his full-throated support for Biden is mainly for public consumption.

Maybe Biden will put the doubts to rest in his interview with George Stephanopoulos. Maybe he’ll hold a two-hour news conference, as Jake Tapper has suggested, and turn back the clock. Right now, though, he appears to be on a trajectory that will end, inevitably, with his making a very different calculation.

These are dark days.

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The return of a Fourth of July tradition: The annual New England Muzzle Awards

Photo (cc) 2015 by jqpubliq

A “disgruntled homophobic Middle School janitor.” The Massachusetts legislature, which has resolutely refused to strengthen our notoriously weak public records law. A Rhode Island city councilor who threw a critic out of a public meeting. A Malden charter school that refused to turn over public records on the patently absurd grounds that it’s not a public school.

These are just a few of the people and institutions that I’ve singled out over the past year as recipients of the New England Muzzle Awards, my annual Fourth of July round-up of transgressions against freedom of expression.

From 1998 to 2012, I wrote these up for the late, much lamented Boston Phoenix. Then, from 2013 to 2022, the Muzzles were hosted by GBH News. I decided to call it a wrap with the 25th-anniversary edition. But then I began to write up Muzzles as they came to my attention rather than saving them all for Independence Day. What follows are Muzzle Awards I’ve handed out since last June.

Kudos, as always, to my friends Harvey Silverglate, who conceived of this annual feature all these years ago, and Peter Kadzis, who edited all 25 editions. They were inspired by the Jefferson Muzzles, which no longer are awarded. Here in New England, though, their spirit lives on.

At a time when democracy itself is under threat, defending the First Amendment is more important than it’s ever been. The envelopes, please.

How our weak public records law is enabling a cover-up of school sports harassment (June 20, 2023)

The Mystic Valley Charter School, winner of a 2017 Muzzle, is back to its old tricks (Aug. 1, 2023)

A Muzzle Award goes to an R.I. city councilor who threw a critic out of the chambers (Aug. 7, 2023)

A NH publisher faces sentencing, while a small town in Mass. says no to drag (Dec. 13, 2023)

A Muzzle for the officers who removed a teenage journalist from a GOP event (Oct. 16, 2023)

In Marblehead and Waltham, teachers and officials seek to stifle public scrutiny (Nov. 8, 2023)

A Muzzle Award for the anonymous troll who reported ‘Gender Queer’ to the police (Dec. 21, 2023)

NH newspaper publisher fined $620 for running unlabeled political ads (Dec. 22, 2023)

AG Campbell boosts free speech for electeds, while an anti-trans shirt goes to court (Feb. 14, 2024)

A Muzzle to a CT police department that kept a murder probe under wraps (March 17, 2024)

Muzzle follow-up: North Brookfield will allow drag show at Pride event (March 20, 2024)

How our shameful public records law is affecting the Karen Read murder trial (April 29, 2024)

Great Barrington teacher sues town, school district and police over classroom search (May 17, 2024)

Plymouth official threatens reporter for recording a public, live-streamed meeting (June 20, 2024)

A Vermont state trooper, a middle finger — and, voilà, a New England Muzzle Award (July 1, 2024)

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Dan Gillmor: It’s time for journalism to stand up for democracy

A plea from Dan Gillmor, the author of “We the Media” and “Mediactive”:

Please, journalists, declare independence from business as usual, from the counterproductive customs that have prevailed in our media even as the danger has escalated. Business as usual is outright malpractice. Stop, before it is too late.

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Why you should become a paid supporter of Media Nation

Media Nation v.1.0

Three and a half years ago, I decided to try something new. Although Media Nation is and always will be a free source of news and commentary, I added a paid tier for readers who wanted to support my work. At the time, Substack was going through a major growth period, and the historian Heather Cox Richardson had signed up enough paid subscribers to bring in more than $1 million a year even though access to her newsletter was free. I thought: Why not?

Well, I’m not making $1 million a year, but I did recently fulfill the extremely modest goal I’d had right from the start. It was the result of a small but unexpected surge, and I’m hoping that I can build on that.

Unfortunately, because I started doing this way back in 2005, I’m somewhat constrained in terms of the UX. In order to become a paid supporter, you need to sign up at a different site, Patreon, where you’ll be asked to pay $5 a month. The terminology is more confusing than it should be, too. You can subscribe to Media Nation for free, and if you do that, you’ll receive new posts to this blog in your inbox. But that’s not the same as becoming a paid supporter, which will get you a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content, a round-up of the week’s posts, photography and a song of the week.

I began blogging about the media since February 2002, which puts me in either the late first wave or early second wave of media bloggers, not all that far behind the legendary Jim Romenesko. He’s retired; I’m still at it. I hope you value what I do enough to become a supporter. All you need to do is click here. Thank you.

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We need terms limits for SCOTUS as well as some constraints on its powers

Photo (cc) 2021 by TapTheForwardAssist

Like no doubt many of you, I am horrified by the Supreme Court’s decision in the presidential immunity case but have little to offer beyond what you’re reading and seeing elsewhere. Nor did I feel reassured when President Biden came out and read a five-minute speech. Here’s part of what the historian Heather Cox Richardson had to say in a truly chilling essay for her newsletter, “Letters from an American”:

This is a profound change to our fundamental law — an amendment to the Constitution, as historian David Blight noted. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that a president needs such immunity to make sure the president is willing to take “bold and unhesitating action” and make unpopular decisions, although no previous president has ever asserted that he is above the law or that he needed such immunity to fulfill his role. Roberts’s decision didn’t focus at all on the interest of the American people in guaranteeing that presidents carry out their duties within the guardrails of the law.

It seems to me that if we’re going to save the country, it’s absolutely essential that a Democrat be elected to the White House this fall, whether it’s Biden or someone else, and that the Democrats take both branches of Congress as well. That’s a tall, unlikely order. And I’m sorry to have to be so partisan, but Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney are not walking through that door.

After that, we can talk about what needs to be done about the court, which has long since sunk into illegitimacy thanks to the machinations of Mitch McDonnell and the corruption of Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito. I’ve seen an upsurge in commentary that the court should be expanded, but that strikes me as a fool’s game — something that could easily be gamed by both parties until we’re up to a 57-member SCOTUS. Instead, I’d like to see term limits that guarantee every president will get one or two appointments plus constraints on the court’s powers, which at the moment appear to be limitless.

I would also like to see Santa.

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A Vermont state trooper, a middle finger — and, voilà, a New England Muzzle Award

Retired Vermont State Police Sgt. Jay Wiggen

Among the most toxic behaviors that we often see in police officers is the tendency of some of them to overreact if they think they’re being disrespected. What they deserve, as public servants doing a difficult and dangerous job, is our cooperation. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Which brings us to Sgt. Jay Riggen, a Vermont state trooper. According to a recent account in The New York Times, in February 2018 Riggen pulled over a driver named Gregory Bombard — twice — for giving him the finger. Bombard denied it, but then did, in fact, flip off Riggen and cursed. Bombard was arrested and charged with two counts of disorderly conduct, charges that were later dismissed.

It got worse. The Times story, by Sara Ruberg continues:

According to the lawsuit, which was filed in 2021, the police circulated Mr. Bombard’s mug shot to local news outlets after his arrest and towed his car from where he had pulled over. Lawyers representing him said that last Christmas the state police issued another citation ordering him to be arraigned on a disorderly conduct charge in connection with the 2018 episode after the dashcam footage of his arrest was circulated and the police received public pushback.

Bombard last month received a $175,000 settlement. And Riggen, who retired at the end of May, is receiving a New England Muzzle Award.

An account by

In the ensuing conversation, Riggen acknowledged that he might have mistaken Bombard lighting a cigarette for the obscene hand gesture. FIRE [the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression] made the dash cam footage of the arrest public late last year.

In his response to Bombard’s lawsuit, Riggen admitted that he told Bombard: “Once I realized that you weren’t flipping me off, you’re free to go.”

As Bombard pulled out to leave, however, he cursed and displayed his middle finger, according to the civil complaint.

In the dash cam video, Riggen can be heard saying: “He called me an asshole and said ‘Fuck you.’ Flipped the bird. I’m gonna arrest him for disorderly conduct.”

Bombard sued with the help of the Vermont ACLU and FIRE. As FIRE senior attorney Jay Diaz put it in a statement: “We wouldn’t tolerate police officers who don’t understand traffic laws or parking laws. Well, the Constitution is the highest law in the land, and it doesn’t allow cops to abuse their power to punish protected speech.”

Now, admittedly, Bombard’s response to Riggen was not exactly the smartest thing he could have done. But it was protected by the First Amendment, and Riggen should have acted accordingly instead of punishing Bombard for failing to show him the respect his mistakenly thought he was entitled to.

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Kamala Harris’ moment

If President Biden is determined to brazen this out, and it appears that he is, then we need to see a lot more of Vice President Kamala Harris. Voters need to be reassured that she’s up to the job of succeeding him.

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