Contrary to James Fallows’ lament, political coverage really is better this time

James Fallows. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Brookings Institution.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing actually wrong in James Fallows’ 4,000-word takedown of the political press, which has been the talk of liberal Twitter since it was published by The Atlantic earlier this month.

But to argue, as Fallows does, that we’re doing it all over again, and that Joe Biden is falling victim to the same irresponsible coverage that befell Clinton four years ago, is to misunderstand the moment.

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The Globe’s partnership with Biogen raises potential ethical concerns

The Boston Globe has announced a partnership with Biogen in which the company’s 4,000 Massachusetts-based employees will receive digital subscriptions. “As part of the deal,” writes Globe reporter Jon Chesto, “the Globe will host two town-hall style discussions around topics of Biogen’s choosing.” In return, the Globe will be paid somewhere in range of six figures.

State House News Service’s MASSter List estimates the deal at $800,000 and warns that it is “rife with conflicts-of-interest concerns.” Indeed it is. I’m not especially worried that the Globe’s coverage of Biogen will turn squishy as a result of the deal, because it’s not really any different from the pressures news organizations are under to go easy on an advertiser — or, in the case of a nonprofit, a funder.

It all comes down to those town halls. How involved will the Globe newsroom be? Will the Globe’s promotion of those town halls cross any ethical lines?

Good for the Globe for finding another revenue stream, especially at a time when COVID is wiping out what was left of already-shrinking ad revenues. Nevertheless, this is worth keeping an eye on.

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Trump goes to war against government-subsidized media

Photo (cc) 2006 by Melissa Gira.

What if President Trump actually had the power to do something about journalism that he doesn’t like? Unfortunately, we already know the answer. A number of media organizations operate under government auspices, and until recently they’ve enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for independence and truth-telling. Now, though, they are in danger of being dismantled or turned into organs of Trumpist propaganda.

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It’s time for Trump’s off-the-record enablers to step out from the shadows

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic posted a blockbuster Thursday evening, reporting that President Donald Trump has repeatedly disparaged those who died in war as “losers” and “suckers.”

But the story probably won’t have the devastating effect that it should because Goldberg’s sources refused to go on the record. I’m outraged, as I have been many times over the past four years, at the gutlessness of these insiders and former insiders, who privately express their disgust with Trump while acting as his enablers.

Yes, attaching their names to this report would subject them to withering criticism and possibly even place them in danger. But the country is in danger, too. It’s time to step up.

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Boston Globe employees told to work at home for the rest of the year

Boston Globe employees were told Wednesday that employees should continue to work remotely through the end of the year, although they may choose to come in to the office for no more than two days a week after Labor Day. What follows is the top of the memo from the Boston Globe Media Partners executive team, which I obtained from a trusted source.

Hello all,

On behalf of the Executive Leadership Team and Safety Committee, we want to provide some important updates and clarification on opening the Boston Exchange Place / 53 State Street office, as well as the Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. offices. We have talked before about how the Boston office would reopen after Labor Day to serve as an optional amenity for people who needed a break working from home, and that it would still be limited to not more than two days per week. We want to emphasize that while we greatly miss being together, not only are you not expected to return work in person, but we do not want or need for you to come in.

We are arranging the office to be safe for people who want to use it on a limited basis, but the preference is that you continue to work from home.  We have been monitoring the pandemic and will continue to respond based on state guidelines, but in the meantime, we are extending this phase of limited, optional-only use of the office through the end of the year.

To be clear, we want the Boston offices to be as empty as possible for the remainder of 2020. While we realize that there could be an expectation that managers may want you to show up in person, or that you may miss out on an opportunity if you are not in the office, we want to dispel that notion by emphasizing that managers do not and must not expect you to return to the office for the remainder of the year. If you have concerns or questions about this, please talk to your manager or reach out to your HR partner to discuss.

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How an intrepid Greek exile, the CIA and The Boston Globe nearly kept Richard Nixon out of the White House

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Elias Demetracopoulos was a fascinating character — World War II resistance fighter, journalist, opponent of the military junta in Greece and, ultimately, a political exile in the United States. Today, though, he is all but forgotten.

In a new biography, James H. Barron seeks to rectify that. “The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate” (Melville House) portrays a larger-than-life figure who could have altered the course of American history if his warnings about illegal Greek financial contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign had been made public. As Barron reveals, The Boston Globe came tantalizingly close to breaking that story — but it went untold until years later.

Given what we already know about Nixon’s attempts to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks during the 1968 campaign, the new details about secret Greek money described by Barron can only add to Nixon’s reputation as a corrupt, cynical politician willing to wade illegally into international affairs if he thought it would benefit him. Watching President Donald Trump clumsily bulldoze his way over the path blazed by Nixon calls to mind Marx’s observation that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Barron is a lawyer and journalist based in the Boston area whose career stops included The Boston Phoenix, and who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, The New Republic and The European. He was the first book review editor for Campaigns & Elections. Barron is also a founding advisory board member of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, now the WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. His wife, Marjorie Arons-Barron, is the retired editorial-page editor at WCVB-TV (Channel 5) and a well-known local blogger.

The following email interview has been lightly edited.

Q: What were the circumstances that led you to tell Demetracopoulos’ story?

A: Serendipity. I was rushed to the ER by ambulance in 2007. Before they figured out my problem, I tried to quell my fears by imagining an idyllic morning on the island of Mykonos 40 years before. Afterward, I thought about why, at that perilous moment, my mind went to Greece in 1966.

I briefly considered writing a novel set there, but I’m not a fiction writer. I was fascinated by the Bostonian Greek tycoon Tom Pappas’ role in the 1968 election and started to write about him. In 2009, I told the legendary investigative reporter Sy Hersh about my project. He advised me to focus instead on Elias Demetracopoulos, the person who tried to blow the whistle on Pappas.

After meeting Elias in Washington, I realized this episode was a small part of a remarkable life, beginning with his days as a 12-year-old involved in the Greek resistance. He was captured, tortured, imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Nazis. Later, as an aggressive, fiercely independent journalist, he fled Greece when a military junta seized power in 1967, escaping to the U.S. over State Department objections.

Q: You write that Demetracopoulos went to Democratic Party operative Larry O’Brien in 1968 with information that Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign had received a secret $549,000 payoff from the Greek junta. You also speculate that O’Brien didn’t inform President Lyndon Johnson, even though it could have led to Nixon’s defeat at the hands of Hubert Humphrey. Why do you think O’Brien sat on it?

A: I explore different theories. O’Brien trusted the message, but not the messenger. Before fleeing to the U.S. in 1967, Elias had been a scoop-hungry reporter whose exposés had so angered American officials that the CIA and State Department tried to destroy his reputation and effectiveness, often placing false information in his intelligence files. JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger passed lies and unjustified speculation to O’Brien and others that, beneath his charming exterior, Elias was a communist who secretly worked for “the other side,” and should not be trusted.

Joe Napolitan, Humphrey’s media adviser, begged to use the Pappas illegal foreign money revelation in ads. O’Brien said no. David Broder of The Washington Post told me that, given how close that election was, Elias’ disclosure would have been a “bombshell” that could have changed the outcome. Imagine history with no President Nixon and no Watergate.

Q: There’s a great Boston Globe angle in your story. You write that Washington bureau chief Bob Healy took Demetracopoulos’ tip to editor Tom Winship, who in turn assigned the story to Christopher Lydon. Lydon ended up writing a profile of Tom Pappas, who was part of Nixon’s campaign as well as a bagman for the junta, but he was unable to prove there had been a payoff. Did the Globe ever try to revisit that story?

A: Healy’s tip came informally from CIA agents, not Elias, indicating that American intelligence at some level knew about the Greek junta plot to bribe the Nixon-Agnew campaign. O’Brien told Elias that, because the matter was so delicate, if he wanted O’Brien to go to LBJ to expose the scandal, Elias must not talk to the press. And he didn’t.

Lydon wrote about the Greek money rumor in the Globe but said the charge was “unsubstantiable.” Lydon interviewed Pappas, who denied the charges, and O’Brien’s press secretary, who said nothing to Lydon about Elias — despite Elias’ detailed revelations to O’Brien, his offers to provide corroborating witnesses in Athens, and even to fly some witnesses to the U.S. More problematic were non-Globe reporters like Gloria Steinem, who summarily dismissed the Greek money rumors as an illegality the frontrunning “New Nixon” would not stoop to commit.

The Globe never revisited the story. Elias moved on, considering his efforts to blow the whistle on Pappas a distraction from his principal fight to restore Greek democracy. Lydon later joined The New York Times, where he met Elias and found him to be a credible source.

Q: The title of your book refers to “the untold story of Watergate.” As you explain, the gang of Nixon operatives who broke into O’Brien’s office at the Watergate complex may very well have been looking for O’Brien’s notes on what Demetracopoulos had told him four years earlier. That would place Nixon’s relationship with the Greek junta at the center of both his 1968 and 1972 campaigns. How does that change our understanding of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency?

A: Greece was peripheral to Nixon’s foreign policy interests, save for his preferring a staunch anti-communist dictatorship to a messy democratic government, human rights be damned, and as a source for illegal campaign funds to be milked by his tycoon fundraiser Tom Pappas.

Watergate is a metaphor for abuse of power during the Nixon years. The scandal didn’t begin with the planning for the June 1972 break-in. Its roots are in the illegal financing of the 1968 election, the potential disclosure of which caused, in the words of the historian Stanley Kutler, the “most anxiety” in the Nixon administration “for the longest period of time.”

Elias’ 1971 congressional testimony against Pappas pushed Nixon’s henchmen into overdrive and led to schemes to have Elias deported, not to mention looking away when the Greek junta plotted to have Elias kidnapped and killed. The sole opportunity to expose the reasons behind the Watergate break-in before the election was stopped because of untruthful attacks on Elias’ reputation.

There is strong circumstantial evidence that at least part of what the burglars were directed to find was whatever derogatory information the Democrats had on Nixon, especially financial documents related to foreign contributions.

Q: Demetracopoulos was a well-known, well-connected figure for many years, yet today he is all but forgotten. What do you think is the single most important lesson of his life and career?

A: Fame is fleeting. Two of the most influential columnists of that time, Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop are also largely forgotten today.

The central takeaway from Elias Demetracopoulos’ life is that one intrepid individual, against great odds, can make a difference — but standing up to abusive governments often entails profound risks, great personal sacrifices, and a lifetime of relentless attacks and harsh consequences.

To be a whistleblower requires the courage to jeopardize your career and even risk your life. But doing so can influence history.

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Boston Globe promotes two editors of color to masthead positions

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory today announced two promotions. In a memo to the staff, McGrory said that Ideas section editor Anica Butler has been named the deputy managing editor for local news, replacing Felice Belman, who recently departed for The New York Times. City editor Nestor Ramos will receive a new title — senior assistant managing editor for local news.

Both Butler’s and Ramos’ names will appear on the masthead, which represents a step forward for a paper seeking to become more diverse. Butler is the first Black woman and Ramos the first Latino to ascend to news-side* masthead positions. Years ago, Greg Moore, who’s African American, was the Globe’s managing editor (the No. 3 position in the newsroom at that time), but he left for The Denver Post in 2002.

A trusted source provided me with McGrory’s memo a little while ago. The full text follows.

Personnel

I’m beyond delighted to share a pair of key personnel announcements.

First, Anica Butler will take over as the Globe’s new deputy managing editor for local news, better known as the metro editor, among the most pivotal roles in any newsroom. She’s been preparing for this job for many years, and preparing extraordinarily well. Her nearly nine years at the Globe have been marked by seismic stories, and Anica always seems to be in the throes of them. She managed, morning to night, our coverage of the Aaron Hernandez, Tsarnaev, and Whitey Bulger trials, three epic events in this city’s history. She brought to all of them a digital, in-the-moment mindset that in many ways laid the groundwork for how we’ve approached big, unfolding stories ever since. In a somewhat gaudy display of her broad range, she then went on to edit a key installment in our 2017 series on the state’s woefully inadequate mental health system, a project that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting.

Anica served a relatively short stint as Felice Belman’s main deputy on the metro desk, and as such, was a key bridge between metro and the digital world, organizing the day in the early morning, dispatching reporters, keying in on the most important journalism that we would focus on that cycle. She was pulled away by the siren song of the Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. When she returned, Anica took over the Ideas section, making it ever more compelling as it took on newsier subjects and brought far greater diversity in voices.

I certainly don’t have to tell anyone that Anica is a wonderful colleague. She’s also the brand new mother of a ten-week-old daughter. As has often been said, when you want to get something done, ask a busy person. Anica will start in this new role when her family leave ends on September 8.

Nestor Ramos, who has proven himself invaluable in his relatively new role as deputy metro editor, better known as the city editor, will take on the enhanced title of senior assistant managing editor for local news, a masthead position. This is a straight-up acknowledgement of his enormous impact on the room and our coverage. Given the coronavirus, given the economic collapse, remote work, social justice, racial injustice, he has been a pivotal leader in what has basically been a decade’s worth of news crammed into the first seven-plus months of 2020. Back in December, when Jen, Jason, and I convinced a reluctant columnist to become an editor,  we knew we needed him at the figurative and literal center of our newsroom. We had no idea how much we needed him, or just how well Nestor would perform — with reporters, other editors, ideas, copy, hiring, you name it. On top of all this, Nestor was announced as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing this spring for his jaw-dropping story on how the climate crisis has ravaged Cape Cod. Nestor, too, is a hall-of-fame colleague in ways big and small, plus the father of two young daughters, ages 4 and 1. The promotion will take effect immediately, and Nestor will report to Anica, in what will be as formidable a duo as there is in this industry.

Please reach out and congratulate Anica and Nestor, and thank them for all they’re about to do.

Brian

*Correction: Added “news-side” to make it clear that there have been persons of color on the masthead from the opinion operation.

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Will the Globe revoke its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss?

Jake Auchincloss

Update, Aug. 7: I should note that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman has tweeted that the Globe will stick by its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss.

***

Update, Aug. 6: In a direct shot at the editorial board, business columnist (and former interim editorial page editor) Shirley Leung has written a column endorsing one of Auchincloss’ opponents, Jesse Mermell.

***

The Boston Globe editorial board appears to be getting ready for the possibility that it might revoke its July 31 endorsement of Democratic congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss. The extremely loud hint came in the form of an announcement that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman would sit down with Auchincloss for a Zoom one-on-one this coming Monday:

Many Globe readers have expressed concerns about the candidate’s past statements and campaign finances, some of which emerged after the editorial board’s deliberations. Readers and voters deserve to know more and hear directly from the candidate. In this conversation, Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman will ask Auchincloss about his record on racial justice, free speech, and beyond.

It’s not as if concerns about Auchincloss’ track record weren’t out there. On Tuesday evening, Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, tweeted out a June 27 commentary in the Newton Tab by Bennett Walkes that begins with this rather devastating statement:

While growing up Black in Newton, I’ve dealt with all sorts of racial profiling and slurs. However, no individual has made me feel more unwelcomed, unvalued and unsafe in my hometown than Jake Auchincloss — now a candidate for Congress.

Walkes cites Auchincloss’ support, on free-speech grounds, for the right to fly the Confederate flag — and comparing it to a Black Lives Matter or Pride banner.

Also on Tuesday evening, the Globe published a story by Stephanie Ebbert reporting on a variety of controversies involving Auchincloss, from his remarks about the Confederate flag to his “no” vote on a city council resolution calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump — an inconvenient fact given Auchincloss’ outspoken opposition to Trump. The editorial board is independent of the newsroom, of course; but they read the paper, and this must have come as very bad news.

Auchincloss is one of a large field of Democrats seeking to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who’s running against U.S. Sen. Ed Markey. Maybe the editorial board will conclude that Auchincloss is still the best choice. But it sounds like they threw in with Auchincloss on the basis of incomplete information.

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The Globe’s early endorsement of Markey isn’t quite as early as it seems

It’s generally understood that when newspaper editorial boards endorse candidates, they do so as late as possible in order to avoid the perception that their news coverage will be slanted in favor of the endorsee. So I was surprised to see The Boston Globe endorse U.S. Sen. Ed Markey over his Democratic primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, a full five weeks before the primary.

What gives? According to the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, it’s later than it seems: mail-in voting will begin soon, so the Sept. 1 primary date is merely the last day that people can cast ballots. I’d honestly forgotten that, even though I’ve applied to vote by mail.

In fact, as David Bernstein recently pointed out at WGBH News, the two campaigns are engaged in furious get-out-the-vote efforts already. Huge numbers of Massachusetts voters are expected to take advantage of the mail-in option in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at the polls.

There’s still a dilemma, though. Because Markey and Kennedy will be campaigning right up until Sept. 1, the Globe’s news reporters will have to fend of complaints of bias for more than a month. The editorial pages at a quality paper like the Globe do not affect news coverage (for example), but try explaining that to the general public.

Should newspapers endorse candidates at all, or is that an outmoded custom? I’ve found that my students are dubious about the merits of news organizations’ telling people whom to vote for. But I think it can be a valuable exercise, especially in situations where an endorsement might really make a difference.

In this case, the Globe endorsement might matter. Markey and Kennedy hold similar progressive views, and readers will sit up and take notice that the Globe isn’t endorsing a Kennedy, as they might have been expected to do — although, as a longtime Globe reader, I can’t say I was all that surprised that they went with Markey.

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Contrary to buzz in the newsroom, Linda Henry says: ‘The Globe is not for sale’

Are John and Linda Henry looking to sell The Boston Globe? Folks in the newsroom have been wondering in recent weeks. But according to Linda Henry, the paper’s managing director, the answer is no.

Henry hosted a Zoom town hall for Globe employees earlier today. Among the questions she was asked, according to a source, was whether the departure of Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra last week was related to a possible sale. I contacted her a short time later, and she replied via email:

The question [at the town hall] was if Vinay’s departure had anything to do with our ownership status, which it absolutely doesn’t. This doesn’t affect our thinking or what we have said about stewarding this great institution. The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.

The idea that a sale might be under consideration gained steam recently when Sarah Betancourt reported reported in CommonWealth Magazine that — according to the Boston Newspaper Guild — the Henrys were “apparently insisting on the removal of a provision in the existing contract that would keep the contract terms intact if the newspaper is sold.” Management and the Guild have been enmeshed in acrimonious contract talks for quite some time.

Yet in most respects the Globe seems to be doing well, although its status as a profitable business probably came a sudden halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and advertising nosedived. The paper went over the long-hoped-for 200,000 mark in digital subscriptions recently, and hiring continues. Just today, editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman announced that Kimberly Atkins would be leaving WBUR Radio and joining the opinion section as a Washington-based senior writer.

Editor Brian McGrory also announced ambitious plans just last week to improve the diversity of the Globe’s hiring, promotions and coverage.

Two years ago, John Henry responded to similar talk of a sale by saying: “I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime. Linda and I love and are committed to this city.”

It sounds like that hasn’t changed.

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