Caveat emptor

“It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing in Abrams v. United States.

I’ve turned on WordPress’ advertising feature in case you were wondering why ads had suddenly popped up. We’ll see how it goes. This isn’t the first time I’ve played with having ads here.

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Sports Hub host Massarotti suspended for a week

Sports Hub radio host Tony Massarotti has been suspended for a week, and the station’s owner, Beasley Broadcast Group, has ordered sensitivity training for all on-air personalities, according to CBS Boston. And good grief, both the headline and the lead refer to what Massarotti said as a “racially insensitive comment.” It was racist. Period.

Update: The Boston Globe also called Massarotti’s remarks “insensitive.” They were quoting Massarotti, I think, but they didn’t use quotation marks. And they should have forthrightly used “racist” to describe what he said.

Earlier:

 

William Loeb revelations and Gannett’s ongoing implosion lead my top 10 list for 2022

William Loeb in 1974. Photo via the Spencer Grant Collection / Boston Public Library.

I thought the final days of 2022 would be a good time to take stock of the state of Media Nation. I’ve put more of an effort into it since giving up my weekly column at GBH News last spring. Even though I stopped writing for GBH so that I could concentrate on writing the book that Ellen Clegg and I are co-authoring on local news, I’ve also tried to put more of an effort into the blog. It seems to have paid off.

According to the data, Media Nation received more page views in 2022 (243,489) than it had since 2014 (258,982). More visitors (160,548) dropped by than in any year for which I have data — the numbers only go back to 2013, and I’ve been blogging independently since 2005. I also published 329 posts in 2022, which is more than any year except 2021, when I published 530. I really don’t know what that was all about; it seems to me that I’ve been blogging more this year than last.

As you may know, this is the age of newsletters, and blogs are considered passé in many circles. So I’m pleased that 2,156 people have signed up for free email delivery of new posts to Media Nation, which makes this place a newsletter as much as it is a blog. I also have a small but hardy band of members who pay $5 a month to keep the blog going. If you’d like to join them, you can sign up here.

What follows are my top 10 posts for 2022. The most trafficked post was about revelations that the late William Loeb, the notorious right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, was a child molester. Five of the top 10 pertain to the Gannett newspaper chain, which went on a downsizing crusade in 2022 that made its previous efforts look almost benevolent. And away we go.

1. William Loeb’s stepdaughter says the toxic publisher was also a child molester, May 1 (8,820 views). Who would have thought that Loeb’s deservedly ugly reputation for racism, antisemitism and all-around hate-mongering could get any worse? Well, it did — so much so that his old paper, since rechristened the New Hampshire Union Leader, removed his name from the masthead.

2. Gannett goes on a massive spree of merging and closing papers weekly newspapers, March 17 (7,634 views). This will go down as the year when Gannett more or less got out of the weekly newspaper business in Massachusetts. The chain also made deep cuts at its 200 dailies, including its flagship, USA Today. But the weeklies, in particular, have been targeted for elimination.

3. While Gannett journalists brace for layoffs, those at the top rake in big bucks, Aug. 8. (6,273 views). Chair and CEO Michael Reed’s compensation has been an issue for years, but it seemed especially relevant at a time when his underpaid journalists were losing their jobs by the hundreds. According to company documents, Reed was paid more than $7.7 million in salary and other benefits in 2021. Compensation for other executives and for part-time board members was eye-popping as well. Who says the newspaper business doesn’t pay?

4. Gannett’s Mass. weeklies to replace much of their local news with regional coverage, Feb. 16. (5,120 views). To my mind, this was worse than shutting down and merging many of the weeklies. With the exception of just three papers (the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial of Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner), Gannett eliminated virtually all local coverage, replacing it with regional beats such as climate change, the criminal justice system and food. Those are not unworthy topics, but who’s going to keep an eye on town hall? Fortunately, the year was also defined by the rise of new local news outlets in Marblehead, Concord, Newton and elsewhere — a trend I expect will continue in 2023.

5. Gannett lays off journalists, closes papers and keeps the numbers to itself, Aug. 15 (4,932 views). Yet another round of cuts by the chain, beleaguered by debt and greed in the executive suites.

6. “A Civil Action”: The real story, Dec. 18, 1998 (4,738 views). Now this one is a real mystery. I wrote the piece for The Boston Phoenix just before the movie version premiered, reporting on what actually happened to the Woburn families who sued three industrial polluters after their children became sick with leukemia; two of the children died. Since Northeastern University now owns the rights to the Phoenix archives, I posted it on Media Nation in 2015 in order to make it more accessible. But I have no idea why it got so many views in 2022. All I can think of is that someone assigned it for a course.

7. A terrible day for Gannett, to be followed by terrible days for its staff and communities, Aug. 5 (4,662 views). In which the company announced that it had lost $54 million during the second quarter on revenues of $749 million, thus leading to the cuts I wrote about 10 days later.

8. A Long Island weekly had the goods on Santos several weeks before Election Day, Dec. 23 (4,152 views). This one is still resonating and may move up in the rankings before the year draws to a close. Following up on reporting by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, I found that The North Shore Leader had exposed some of the details about serial liar George Santos several weeks before Election Day — raising questions about why larger news organizations such as The New York Times and Newsday didn’t take notice.

9. The ugly truth about Eric Clapton — and the line between the art and the artist, Oct. 18, 2021 (3,255 views). The great guitarist came out as an anti-vaxxer, raising questions about why we didn’t understand that he was a jerk (and a racist) all along. This was also 12th on my most-viewed list for 2021.

10. Bob Garfield revisits his firing from ‘On the Media’ and brings his podcast to a close, June 21 (2,484 views). The public radio program “On the Media” has been one of my must-listens for many years, although I’m not happy that the program is less and less about the media. (There have been some recent signs of a return to form.) The chemistry between co-hosts Garfield and Brooke Gladstone was one of the things that made it special, even though we now know they hated each other’s guts. Garfield was fired in 2021 and accused of abusive behavior in the workplace, an accusation he more or less admitted to but defended anyway. And by the way, my post on Gladstone’s taking to the airwaves to say that Garfield got what he deserved was my most viewed (9,172 times) of 2021. The break-up of Gladstone and Garfield’s professional partnership obviously meant a lot to many people.

The numbers show why it’s difficult for many to walk away from Twitter

Thanks for the traffic, Bob! Photo (cc) 2011 by Francisco Antunes.

I was looking at my WordPress statistics for 2022, and one number really leaped out at me. Twitter was the third-largest source of traffic to Media Nation in 2022. Search engines were responsible for 70,626 views, Facebook was second at 27,126, and Twitter was right behind at 25,371.

As you probably know, I’ve stopped using Twitter. But it shows you why walking away is pretty close to impossible for self-employed journalists and marginal operators who can’t afford to spurn any service that drives traffic to their site. Although I have a voluntary membership program for $5 a month (please consider!), my livelihood is not dependent on Media Nation.

Search, Facebook and Twitter were the big three, followed by LinkedIn at 4,047 and, in fifth place, an unexpected source: Editor & Publisher, the news industry trade publication, at 3,827. E&P has been kind enough to feature my posts in its daily newsletter on a fairly regular basis, so I guess that’s the explanation. Other notable entries in the top 10 were Universal Hub and Expecting Rain, a site for fans of Bob Dylan, who I’ve been known to write about from time to time. From there it quickly dribbles down to double and single digits.

I’ve taken most of my Twitter-like posts to Mastodon, so I was curious to see that there was nothing. The explanation, I found out, is that Mastodon contains code that makes referrals invisible, which is supposedly some sort of privacy protection. I don’t quite get it, and I’ve learned about a workaround that will supposedly make Mastodon referrals show up. I am getting some referrals from Post News, which, like Mastodon, is emerging as a leading Twitter replacement.

Sticking Twitter in the freezer

Photo (cc) 2014 by Monteregina

When making ethical decisions, we all have to decide where we’re going to draw the line. I’ve been watching Elon Musk’s behavior closely since he purchased Twitter in late October and thinking about where I ought to draw my own line.

It’s different for everyone, and I’m not going to criticize anyone else’s judgment. For Jelani Cobb, it came when Musk restored Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which had been locked because he incited violence during the Jan. 6 insurrection. I semi-shrugged my shoulders. No, I wasn’t thrilled that Musk had brought back Trump and his merry band of Q-adjacent loons, including the loathsome Marjorie Taylor Greene. But my goodness, have you seen the internet? Twitter’s a big place, and I didn’t see any particular reason why we couldn’t all co-exist in our own spaces.

Then there are the deeply stupid “Twitter Files,” promoted by house journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, internal documents given to them by Musk that show evidence of some mistakes in moderation but that mainly demonstrate Twitter was attempting to enforce its publicly stated policies about hate speech, incitement and misinformation. There’s some big-time hyperventilating going on about one of those mistakes — the decision to suppress the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. But that decision was reversed within 24 hours, and it’s worth noting that it was based on an actual policy not to share hacked information. This is a scandal? (Brian Fung of CNN has more.)

What has brought me to this moment, though, is Musk’s own behavior. In late November, Twitter announced that it would no longer take action against misinformation about COVID-19, in accordance with the Chief Twit’s wishes. And then, within the past few days, came the end of the line, at least for me. First Musk attacked Yoel Roth, his former head of trust and safety. Musk tweeted out a short section of Roth’s Ph.D. dissertation to make it appear, falsely, that Roth supports the sexualization of children. “Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services in his PhD thesis,” Musk tweeted. (If you’re interested in the particulars, see this piece at Business Insider by Sawdah Bhaimiya.)

Then, on Sunday, Musk tweeted, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” and followed that up with a meme from some fantasy movie (“Lord of the Rings”?) of Fauci whispering in President Biden’s ear, “Just one more lockdown my king.” (Details from Jesse O’Neill in the New York Post.)

At what point does indifference morph into complicity? What we have now is the head of Twitter, with 121 million followers, tweeting out messages that are putting actual people and their families at risk. In what should have been a surprise to no one, Roth has had to flee his home and go into hiding, according to Donie Sullivan of CNN. Fauci, as you no doubt know, has been facing death threats throughout the pandemic, and Musk’s amplifying a bogus call to arrest and prosecute him could make matters worse. I realized that was my line, and Musk had crossed it.

I’ve downloaded my Twitter archive and will no longer be posting there except to help those who contact me and are looking for an alternative. I’ll set my account to private as soon as I’ve tweeted this out. I considered deleting my account altogether, but who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe next week Musk will enter a monastery and donate Twitter to the Wikimedia Foundation. Yes, that’s pretty unlikely — as unlikely as one of Musk’s SpaceX rocket ships safely taking you to Mars and back. For the moment, though, I don’t want to do anything that I can’t reverse if conditions change.

This was not an easy decision. I’ve been a heavy Twitter user since I joined in 2008. I’ve got more than 19,000 followers, and I know that not all of them are going to move to other platforms. But here are some alternatives below. You might also want to check out this roundup from Laurel Wamsley at NPR.

  • If you’re not doing so already, you can sign up to receive new posts to Media Nation by email. It’s free. Just scroll down the right-hand rail on the homepage, enter your email address and click on “Follow.”
  • The most promising Twitter alternative is Mastodon, which is a decentralized network of networks that — once you get past the clumsiness of figuring out how to sign up — works very much like Twitter. I joined in early November, and more than 1,300 people are following me there already. I’m at @dankennedy_nu@journa.host. There are various guides on how to get started. Here’s one from CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis.
  • If Mastodon is the earthy-crunchy alternative to Twitter, then Post News is the corporate version. Like Mastodon, Post News is promoting itself as a civil environment free of abuse and trolling. I know that some Mastodon folks are criticizing Post News for being just another venture-capital play that may eventually come to as bad an end as Twitter. They’re not wrong. For now, though, I’m looking at Mastodon as a place where I can connect mainly with journalists, academics and the extremely online, and then mosey over to Post News to engage with normal people. The interface is simple and attractive; the site is still in beta and will continue to improve. You can follow me at dankennedy_nu.
  • Let’s not forget that Facebook isn’t going anywhere. If we don’t know each other, please don’t send me a friend request; follow my public feed instead. Here’s where you can find me.
  • I’m also on LinkedIn and Instagram, but I prefer not to use those to engage the way I do on the other platforms.

There are a million takes on what has happened to Twitter that I could point you to, and believe me, there are very few that are worth reading. But this one is worthwhile. It’s by Ezra Klein, and he questions whether any of these platforms, even the nice new ones, are doing us any good.

Finally, what we need more than anything on Mastodon and Post News is some diversity, which, at its pre-Musk best, is what was great about Twitter. Black Twitter needs a home, and I really miss my non-Trumpy conservative followers and the less politically engaged. I invite you all to take the plunge. Join one of the alternatives. Cut down or eliminate your Twitter activity. And discover the joys of de-Muskifying your life.

The shame of Musk’s takeover is that Twitter was starting to get (a little) better

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The shame of it is that Twitter was starting to get a little better. Some months back I decided to spend $3 a month for Twitter Blue. You had up to a minute to pull back a tweet if you saw a typo or if a picture didn’t display properly. More recently, they added an actual edit button, good for 30 minutes. Best of all is something called “Top Articles,” which shows stories that are most widely shared by your network and their networks. I almost always find a couple of stories worth reading — including the one from The Verge that I’ve shared below.

Anyway, here we are. Billionaire Elon Musk is now the sole owner of a social media platform that I check in with multiple times during the day and post to way too much. Twitter is much smaller than Facebook and YouTube, and smaller than TikTok and Instagram, too. In fact, it’s smaller than just about everything else. But it punches above its weight because it’s the preferred outlet for media and political people. It’s also a cesspool of sociopathy. We’re all worried that Musk will make it worse, but let’s be honest — it’s already pretty bad.

The smartest take I’ve seen so far is by Nilay Patel in The Verge. Headlined “Welcome to hell, Elon,” the piece argues that Musk isn’t going to be able to change Twitter as much as he might like to because to do so will drive advertisers away — something that’s already playing out in General Motors’ decision to suspend its ads until its executives can get a better handle on what the Chief Twit has in mind. Patel also points out that Musk is going to receive a lot of, er, advice about whom to ban on Twitter from countries where his electric car company, Tesla, does business, including Germany, China and India. Those are three very different cultures, but all of them have more restrictive laws regarding free speech than the United States. Patel writes:

The essential truth of every social network is that the product is content moderation, and everyone hates the people who decide how content moderation works. Content moderation is what Twitter makes — it is the thing that defines the user experience. It’s what YouTube makes, it’s what Instagram makes, it’s what TikTok makes. They all try to incentivize good stuff, disincentivize bad stuff, and delete the really bad stuff…. The longer you fight it or pretend that you can sell something else, the more Twitter will drag you into the deepest possible muck of defending indefensible speech.

Indeed, Twitter has already reinstated the noted antisemite formerly known as Kanye West, although Musk, weirdly enough, says he had nothing to do with it.

My approach to tweeting in Elon Musk’s private garden will be to do what I’ve always done and see what happens. I use it too much to walk away, but I don’t like it enough to wring my hands.

Both-sides-ism creeps into a story that mostly rises above both-sides-ism

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. Photo (cc) 2017 by Lorie Shaull.

Sometimes it can be hard to avoid both-sides-ism no matter how well-intentioned you are. On Sunday, as part of its “Democracy Challenged” series, The New York Times analyzed the rhetoric (free link) of congressional representatives to see to what extent members of the two major parties are using toxic, polarizing language. Here’s the nut:

The Times found that in the current Congress, representatives who fought certifying the election used polarizing language on Twitter about 55 percent more often than other Republicans, and nearly triple the rate of Democrats. Objectors referred to their opponents as “socialist” in more than 1,800 tweets, more than twice as often as other Republicans. Democrats called the other side “fascist” about 80 times.

The article, by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Steve Eder, is comprehensive and important. But do you see what they’re doing? They’re telling us that even though Republicans use terrible language to demonize their opponents far more often than Democrats, Democrats sometimes do it, too.

There aren’t a half-dozen Democratic members of Congress who are socialists — not even in the mild, Western European sense. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republicans have embraced election denialism, a number that goes well beyond those who refused to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021. In doing so, they are embracing authoritarianism, which, if it is anything, is surely a form of fascism. Maybe “semi-fascism,” to use President Biden’s apt phrase.

In attempting to show that Democrats do it, too, the Times cites the example of Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, who, on the first anniversary of the failed insurrection, “sent an email to her constituents calling the event an ‘attempted coup’ and asserting that ‘our democracy is in danger.'” She told the Times that she has no regrets, saying, “I intend to defend our democracy, and if that is ‘polarizing,’ so be it.”

Well, yes. Nearly all of the Republican attacks on Democrats are laden with falsehoods or wild exaggerations. The Democratic attacks on Republicans aren’t just far less numerous — they are also, for the most part, an accurate assessment of what we’re up against. The story, good as it is, could have done a better job of showing that.

Hitting pause

It’s Baseball Hall of Fame Week here in Media Nation, so blogging will be somewhere between light and nonexistent. But watch for our latest “What Works” podcast by midweek.

New on ‘Beat the Press’: The media and the mass shooting dilemma

Photo (cc) 2013 by Maryland GovPics

The new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, and this week we have a single-theme program: the mass murders in Uvalde, Texas, and what role the media play — and should play — in covering what has become a long string of such incidents.

Also on tap are our panel’s Rants & Raves. Mine is on the social media meltdown at The Washington Post, recorded after reporter David Weigel was suspended for retweeting a homophobic, sexist joke but before Felicia Sonmez was fired for continuing to criticize the Post after she’d been asked not to.

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, along with Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss of Experience magazine and me. You can listen here and subscribe in your podcast app.

A Washington Post reporter is suspended after his sexist retweet blows up

Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2022 by the World Economic Forum.

The use and misuse of social media platforms — especially Twitter — continue to torment newsrooms. The latest news organization to have a mess on its hands is The Washington Post, which is no stranger to past Twitter controversies.

Let’s start at the end: political reporter David Weigel was suspended for a month without pay after retweeting a horrendously sexist joke for which he had already apologized. The joke — and yes, God Almighty, Weigel should have known better: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the entire controversy, which included pointed criticism of Weigel by a fellow Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez (on Twitter, naturally) and criticism of Sonmez by reporter Jose Del Real, who was upset that Sonmez had unleashed the Twitter mob on Weigel.

Post executive editor Sally Buzbee weighed in on Sunday, writing an internal memo calling on Post journalists “to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.” That might have been the end of it, but obviously Buzbee thought she needed to make a statement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

We are all tempted to push the envelope on Twitter to get attention, measured by like and retweets. But at this late date, you’d think a reporter for a respected news organization would have figured it out. We don’t always know where the lines are, but it was pretty obvious in this case.

Twitter has its uses in journalism — mainly to follow people and organizations who are useful for your beat. If you read 10 times more frequently than you post, you’re probably doing it right. I’d say that journalists ought to restrict their Twitter activities to posting links to their work and that of their news organization; sharing other work they think is worthwhile; and engaging in light banter, because we’re all human. But if light banter is what Weigel thought he was doing, maybe he needs to take a long, long break from Twitter.

Weigel, by the way, lost an earlier gig at the Post back in 2010 after it was revealed that he’d been disparaging conservatives on a private forum called Journolist. And Sonmez was suspended after she took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death to remind everyone of his past sexual assaults.

As they say: Never tweet.