The Times publishes two front-page stories on anti-vaxxers. Why?

Any reason The New York Times had to publish not one but two lengthy stories today on heartlanders who refuse to get vaccinated? One is from Ohio, the other from Oklahoma. If the Times has ever devoted a story of similar length and prominence to people who feel trapped in their homes because they’re surrounded by unvaxxed COVID carriers, well, I don’t remember it.

Boston Globe Media eyes expanding into TV, films, broadcast and radio

Public domain photo by Circe Denyer

Boston Globe Media Partners produces more fourth-quarter memos than I realized. I’ve posted most of them as they waft in from trusted sources.

This one strikes me as interesting because it outlines BGMP’s plans “to develop projects for television, film, podcasts and radio, and other media: we seek to amplify the remarkable stories found across all of BGMP’s newsrooms [The Boston Globe, Stat and Boston.com] by giving them new lives in these media formats beyond the print and digital word.”

The memo, written by Dan Krockmalnic, executive vice president for new media and general counsel, points to a few examples — most significantly “Gladiator,” the Spotlight series on Aaron Hernandez that was simultaneously released as a podcast and is now being developed as a television series.

“Not every New Media project can or will have the phenomenal reach of ‘Gladiator,’” Krockmalnic writes, “but success for us is getting our journalism out in new forms that reach new audiences where they are.”

I realize some of these memos are very inside, but that’s part of what Media Nation is for. So here is the full text of Krockmalnic’s message:

New Media Department Update — Q4 2021

Dear Colleagues,

Thanks for reading my Legal Department update a few weeks ago. Today I’m excited to share with you highlights from the work of the New Media Department over our first year as a standalone group within the company.

What is the New Media Department, and why start one?

As others have noted, BGMP has been expanding from a newspaper into a modern multimedia company. Many of the stories told in the journalism the Globe has produced — and those stories from STAT and boston.com, too — are well-suited to be told in other mediums — be they about a larger-than-life personality, a you-can’t-believe-it’s-true crime story, or a world-leading medical breakthrough. Spotlight was a remarkable film that did wonders to establish our name and our brand in this space. That was a film about us; we wanted to lean into the business of regularly making projects that are by us.

And so now, the New Media team leads our efforts to develop projects for television, film, podcasts and radio, and other media: we seek to amplify the remarkable stories found across all of BGMP’s newsrooms by giving them new lives in these media formats beyond the print and digital word. Done right, this increases our exposure and appreciation by reaching new viewers and listeners with our journalism. It also adds separate revenue streams as we seek to diversify our business.

This ground has been trod by others: I look admiringly at the New York Times’ achievements in this space that include many groundbreaking and award-winning documentaries, The New York Times Presents show, the 1619 Project-related media, the scripted Modern Love series, The Fourth Estate documentary series, and their growing podcasting and audio empire.

Who is the New Media Department?

I started off alone on the business side, with Scott Allen in the Globe’s newsroom as an essential partner right from the jump. Linda [Henry, the CEO of Boston Globe Media] had the immediate good sense that the vision required expert help, and so after a lengthy interview process, Ira Napoliello joined us this past March as Director of New Media. Ira was exactly what we needed, having spent the better part of two decades as a film producer in Los Angeles before moving to Boston to be close to his wife’s family.

How do you spend your time?

Our days are split between working with our colleagues at BGMP and dealing with our entertainment partners. They include our agents at UTA and Aevitas; Hollywood film and television studios and streamers; podcasting companies; the creative talent like writers, directors, actors and producers; and talent agents and managers.

Ira joins various newsroom staff meetings and stays in regular contact with editors and reporters to ensure that we are aware of upcoming stories and investigations. He also spends time scouring the Globe archives to try to find stories from the past that might be right for adaptation. As ideas begin to take shape, we schedule and lead an alarming number of internal and external meetings and calls to shepherd the projects from concept to reality.

We listen a lot and we read even more. We’re looking for the stories that make you want to share them with a note: “You need to read this one.” Sometimes they are so unbelievable as to sound… not believable. Think: the comedic tale from Neil Swidey about a 25-year war between two neighbors in Beverly, or Shelley Murphy’s sweeping Finding Lisa piece about a woman’s genealogical search for her family revealing that the man she thought was her father was actually a serial killer.

We don’t need to look far to point to what success looks like: Spotlight’s remarkable Gladiator series on the tragic life of Aaron Hernandez was a groundbreaking six-part series that was smartly coupled with the simultaneous release of a chart-topping podcast series created in partnership with Wondery. The podcast’s runaway success caught the eyes (ears?) of executives at the FX network. And so earlier this summer, FX announced that Gladiator will now have its third life as a scripted, limited-run series on its television and streaming channel as American Sports Story, part of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story franchise. The show is currently being written and will be filming next summer and is set to debut in 2023. Our Spotlight team is working now with the show’s creatives to ensure that the series remains truthful to the original reporting.

By the end of its run, Gladiator will have led to thousands of new Globe subscriptions, over 10 million podcast downloads, and its own season-run show. That means subscription, advertising, licensing, and production revenue — a perfect example of what we aspire to when we talk about a modern media company. And all founded on the truly exceptional journalism for which we’re known.

Not every New Media project can or will have the phenomenal reach of Gladiator, but success for us is getting our journalism out in new forms that reach new audiences where they are. We succeed when we make smart calls on projects: as Brian has put it, each such project is a bit of a lottery ticket, and we’re looking to tip the odds in our favor with decisions that allow us to de-risk our investment — just like the gang behind the Cash WinFall scheme did with the Massachusetts State Lottery in the remarkable 2011 story from Andres Estes and Scott Allen.

What have you accomplished so far?

We’ve had some early successes in our first year:

We are thrilled to be finalizing an agreement with one of the most prestigious streamers to produce two parallel projects — a multi-part documentary and a multi-episode podcast series — about a well-known Boston true-crime story. The documentary will be directed by an award-winning documentarian and the podcast will be the streamer’s first-ever foray into original investigative journalism. More to come on this soon.

We helped close a deal to license STAT’s first feature-length documentary, Augmented, to GBH’s Nova to distribute and air. Augmented tells the story of Hugh Herr’s new way of performing amputations that will allow bionic limbs to move and feel like the real thing, decades after his own legs were amputated in a mountain-climbing accident.

In the “older” media realm of book deals, we are working with Black Dog & Leventhal to publish a book on the history of the Boston Red Sox as told through the Boston Globe. (Here’s their analogous book with the New York Times and the Yankees; fortunately, it hasn’t needed much updating in the last 20 years…).

A few other stories we are actively working to develop include:

The murder of Tiffany Moore: 12-year-old Moore was a victim of a 1988 gang crossfire shooting. Her death became a symbol of the depravity of gang violence and led to the conviction of the wrong suspect thanks to overzealous, unethical law enforcement that wrongfully charged and prosecuted Sean Drumgold. Globe reporter Dick Lehr’s work led to his exoneration decades later. We are working with Dick to revisit the crime with an eye to something more: identifying the real killer and getting justice for Tiffany.

The Boy in the River: in April 1972, 13-year-old Danny Croteau was found dead in the Chicopee River. He was killed by blunt force trauma and left floating, face down, in the water. His murder was unsolved for almost 50 years. In May 2021, former Catholic priest Richard Lavigne confessed to the murder from his death bed. We will work with Novel, the award-winning and London-based podcasting company, to produce a documentary podcast featuring our own Kevin Cullen that explains how crucial institutions including the police, prosecutors and the Church failed Danny and allowed Lavigne literally to get away with murder.

Sparkies: the largest arson ring in U.S. history — including Boston police and firefighters — set over 160 fires in the early 1980s in the stunningly mistaken belief that these public dangers would somehow convince the city to restore cuts to police and fire services. One arsonist, a Boston Housing cop who called himself “Mr. Flare” to the media, threatened to keep setting fires “till all deactivated police and fire equipment is brought back.”

Camp Q: Inspired by Zoe Greenberg’s viral story from this summer, we are developing a character-driven scripted comedy about an eventful couple of days at a New England summer camp where seemingly everything went wrong.

We work on each project to ensure that, whatever the medium the story is told in, it is worthy of having the Boston Globe Media name attached to it. As we’re always on the lookout for new stories, please drop us a line with any interesting ideas that you feel could make for a great project. We’re excited to make it happen.

Happy holidays,
Dan

Dan Krockmalnic
Executive Vice President, New Media & General Counsel
Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC

 

From COVID to our crisis of democracy, 2021 turned out to be a scant improvement over 2020

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

Previously published at GBH News.

Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?

Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.

During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.

The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.

Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.

How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.

The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.

How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.

Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.

Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.

COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.

How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.

A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.

Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.

Ethics 101: Why Tom Friedman shouldn’t give money to a group he writes about

Thomas Friedman. Photo (cc) 2016 by the Brookings Institution.

It’s been at least a few months since there have been any ethical problems involving The New York Times’ opinion section. Now, though, the streak has been broken. Paul Fahri of The Washington Post reports that Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written repeatedly about Conservation International, an organization to which he and his family have donated millions of dollars.

“Those contributions,” writes Fahri, “raise a somewhat novel ethical question: Should a journalist — particularly one as distinguished and influential as Friedman — disclose his direct financial support of those he’s writing about?”

Actually, this isn’t a close call. No. Journalists, including opinion journalists like Friedman, should not belong to or give money to organizations that they report on and write about. And if they find themselves in a position where they just can’t avoid it, they have to disclose the conflict. This is not so they can be “objective” — if it was, then it wouldn’t matter what opinion journalists do. It’s so they can maintain their independence.

As a summary of “The Elements of Journalism,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, puts it:

Journalistic independence … is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform – not their devotion to a certain group or outcome.

I suppose Friedman deserves at least a little bit of credit for giving money rather than taking it. Earlier this year, you may recall, Times columnist David Brooks got in trouble when it was revealed that he had a paid position at the Aspen Institute and had written favorably about funders, including Facebook.

Brooks kept his job after the Times said that he had disclosed the arrangement to his superiors in 2018, although his current editors didn’t know about it.

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Bina Venkataraman to step down as the Globe’s editorial page editor

Bina Venkataraman. Photo (cc) 2019 by TED Conference.

Less that two weeks after sending out a memo to her staff looking ahead to the new year, Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman has announced that she’s leaving. She posted a thread on Twitter within the past hour that begins:

Her departure isn’t entirely unexpected, as she took a leave of absence during the fall in the midst of the Boston mayoral campaign. Nevertheless, it’s stunning that her tenure lasted such a short time. It’s also at least a temporary setback for the Globe’s efforts to diversify; having a woman of color as one of the top two journalists (along with editor Brian McGrory) reporting to Linda and John Henry sent a powerful signal.

Venkataraman isn’t leaving completely. She’ll remain as an editor-at-large, which she says will involve writing for the Globe and advising The Emancipator, a racial justice digital publication that the paper is launching in collaboration with Boston University.

Unlike the news side, where McGrory has been a fixture since 2012 (he actually helped recruit Henry to buy the Globe from the New York Times Co.), the opinion side has been in flux for a long time. Ellen Clegg replaced Peter Canellos as editorial page editor in 2014, less than a year after Henry completed his purchase. Clegg served until her retirement in 2018, followed by business columnist Shirley Leung on an interim basis. Venkataraman arrived in 2019. (Clegg and I are now research and podcast partners.)

Venkataraman was an unconventional hire — a science journalist and author who didn’t come from the politics and policy side where most opinion editors cut their teeth. It will be interesting to see what direction the Globe heads in next.

Can The Washington Post differentiate itself from The New York Times?

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2017 by TEDxColumbiaUniversity.

The Washington Post, on an upward trajectory for most of the time since Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013, has stalled out. At least that’s the gist of a story in The Wall Street Journal by Benjamin Mullin and Alexandra Bruell, who report that the Post is struggling to find its footing now that Donald Trump has left the White House (if not the scene) and interest in political news is on the decline. They write:

The Post, like most major publications, experienced an audience surge during the Trump years, when readers flocked to stories about the controversial Republican administration. Now, the Post is facing a slump that has triggered some soul-searching at the paper, including over the need to invest more in coverage areas outside of politics, according to people familiar with the news outlet’s operations and internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The fate of the Post is of particular interest to me since much of my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” is devoted to the Post under Bezos. When I was reporting for the book, the Post was going great guns, beating the Times on significant stories — especially Trump’s 2016 campaign — and growing so quickly that it seemed possible that it might even shoot past its New York rival.

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Since around the middle of the Trump presidency, though, I’ve had a sense — not confirmed by data, so don’t take this too seriously — that the Post had plateaued. To put it in simple terms, the Post and the Times competed fiercely for several years after Bezos’ arrival, and the Times won.

You can see it in their paid digital subscriptions. The Times now has about 7.6 million, including about 5.6 million subscribers to its core digital news product (the rest subscribe only to a special service like the Times’ cooking app, the crossword puzzle or whatever). And the Times’ numbers keep growing. The Post, by contrast, is at 2.7 million digital-only subscribers, according to the Journal, down from about 3 million at the beginning of the year.

Now, it would be easy to make too much of this difference. Just about every publisher in the country would love to have The Washington Post’s problems. It’s still one of the largest news operations in the U.S., with a deep, talented newsroom. But the numbers do raise some questions about what the Post’s leaders see as their mission.

We have three great national newspapers — the Times, the Post and the Journal. The Times is our biggest and most capable general-interest newspaper. The Journal has a business focus and a right-wing opinion page, which offers an alternative (to be polite) to what you see in most newspaper opinion sections. The Journal, like the Post, has about 2.7 million paid digital subscribers. Unlike the Post, though, the Journal’s total is rising; in 2020, it was less than 2.3 million.

It seems to me that the Post finds itself in a difficult position — competing directly with the Times for exactly the same national audience and falling behind, and not able to differentiate itself from the Times the way the Journal has. The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who succeeded Marty Baron earlier this year after serving as The Associated Press’ top editor, hasn’t really said how she’s going to address that. Indeed, in a recent appearance on Kara Swisher’s New York Times podcast, she showed a remarkable ability not to be pinned down on much of anything.

The Times is far from perfect, of course. Its political coverage, in particular, drives me crazy with its frequent embrace of false equivalence at a time when one of our two major political parties has devolved into an authoritarian, antidemocratic force. The Post is better at avoiding that trap. Its technology is superior to the Times’, too. Overall, though, the Times offers a better, more comprehensive report, especially in areas like international news, business and culture.

It’s good for democracy to have two large, general-interest national papers battling it out. The Post isn’t going away. But you have to wonder what the future of the Times-Post rivalry is going to look like. Back in the 1970s, when the rivalry was especially pitched, the Times’ and Post’s readership bases were pretty much restricted to their geographic areas. Now they are both available nationally and internationally, making it easy to choose one over the other.

In effect, the Times and the Post are now competing in a winner-take-all economy. I hope there continues to be room for both.

After a long delay, most of The Boston Phoenix print archives are now online

The Boston Phoenix’s archives have taken a giant step closer to becoming accessible and usable.

A few weeks ago I learned from Giordana Mecagni, the head of special collections and university archivist at Northeastern, that a deal had been struck with the Internet Archive to make print editions of the Phoenix available — and searchable — online. On Wednesday, it became official. Caralee Adams has the details at the Internet Archive’s blog.

I’m really thrilled that this has happened. I was on staff at the Phoenix from 1991 to 2005, most of that time as the media columnist, and I continued to write for the paper occasionally up until it closed in 2013. Two years later, the Phoenix’s founder and publisher, Stephen Mindich, donated the archives to Northeastern, a gift I helped arrange.

Unfortunately, Stephen died in 2018, and the hopes we all had of digitizing the collection stalled out. A couple of years ago there was talk of a grant proposal, but that didn’t go anywhere, either. So what happened? Adams explains:

As it turns out, the Internet Archive owned the master microfilm for the Phoenix and it put the full collection online in a separate collection: The Boston Phoenix 1973-2013. Initially, the back issues were only available for one patron to check out at a time through Controlled Digital Lending. Once Northeastern learned about the digitized collection, it extended rights to the Archive to allow the Phoenix to be downloaded without controls.

“All of a sudden it was free to the public. It was wonderful,” Mecagni told Adams. “We get tons and tons of research requests for various aspects of the Phoenix, so having it available online for free for people to download is a huge help for us.”

I’ve been playing with the new collection the last few weeks, and though it’s not perfect, it’s a big step forward. It encompasses papers starting in 1973, when Mindich, the publisher of a competing alt-weekly called Boston After Dark, acquired The Phoenix and renamed it The Boston Phoenix, up until the closing in March 2013.

There are some significant gaps; there appear to be no issues from 2011 or ’12, and just 33 from 2010, for instance. (I’ll bet there are ways of fixing that. I know that the Boston Public Library has the Phoenix in its microfilm collection, and perhaps it’s more complete than what the Internet Archive has.) And BAD, the pre-Mindich Phoenix and The Real Paper, founded by former staff members of The Phoenix following the 1973 acquisition, are all absent as well.

But this is a huge, huge step forward. As Carly Carioli, the last editor of the Phoenix, told Adams: “It’s a dream come true. The Phoenix was invaluable in its own time, and I think it will be invaluable for a new generation who are just discovering it now.”

Giordana Mecagni deserves huge thanks. From the beginning, she has understood the value of the Phoenix. This is a big step forward for her vision as well.

That link, once again, is right here. Enjoy!

A $150 billion lawsuit over genocide may force Facebook to confront its dark side

Displayed Rohingya Muslims. Photo (cc) 2017 by Tasnim News Agency.

Previously published at GBH News.

How much of a financial hit would it take to force Mark Zuckerberg sit up and pay attention?

We can be reasonably sure he didn’t lose any sleep when British authorities fined Facebook a paltry $70 million earlier this fall for withholding information about its acquisition of Giphy, an app for creating and hosting animated graphics. Maybe he stirred a bit in July 2019, when the Federal Trade Commission whacked the company with a $5 billion penalty for violating its users’ privacy — a punishment described by the FTC as “the largest ever imposed” in such a case. But then he probably rolled over and caught a few more z’s.

OK, how about $150 billion? Would that do it?

We may be about to find out. Because that’s the price tag lawyers for Rohingya refugees placed on a class-action lawsuit they filed in California last week against Facebook — excuse me, make that Meta Platforms. As reported by Kelvin Chan of The Associated Press, the suit claims that Facebook’s actions in Myanmar stirred up violence in a way that “amounted to a substantial cause, and eventual perpetuation of, the Rohingya genocide.”

Even by Zuckerberg’s standards, $150 billion is a lot of money. Facebook’s revenues in 2020 were just a shade under $86 billion. And though the pricetags lawyers affix on lawsuits should always be taken with several large shakers of salt, the case over genocide in Myanmar could be just the first step in holding Facebook to account for the way its algorithms amplify hate speech and disinformation.

The lawsuit is also one of the first tangible consequences of internal documents provided earlier this fall by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower who went public with information showing that company executives knew its algorithms were wreaking worldwide havoc and did little or nothing about it. In addition to providing some 10,000 documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Haugen told her story anonymously to The Wall Street Journal, and later went public by appearing on “60 Minutes” and testifying before Congress.

The lawsuit is a multi-country effort, as Mathew Ingram reports for the Columbia Journalism Review, and the refugees’ lawyers are attempting to apply Myanmar’s laws in order to get around the United States’ First Amendment, which — with few exceptions — protects even the most loathsome speech.

But given that U.S. law may prevail, the lawyers have also taken the step of claiming that Facebook is a “defective” product. According to Tim De Chant, writing at Ars Technica, that claim appears to be targeted at Section 230, which would normally protect Facebook from legal liability for any content posted by third parties.

Facebook’s algorithms are programmed to show you more and more of the content that you engage with, which leads to the amplification of the sort of violent posts that helped drive genocide against the Rohingyas. A legal argument that would presumably find more favor in the U.S. court system is the algorithmic-driven spread of that content, rather than the content itself.

“While the Rohingya have long been the victims of discrimination and persecution, the scope and violent nature of that persecution changed dramatically in the last decade, turning from human rights abuses and sporadic violence into terrorism and mass genocide,” the lawsuit says. “A key inflection point for that change was the introduction of Facebook into Burma in 2011, which materially contributed to the development and widespread dissemination of anti-Rohingya hate speech, misinformation, and incitement of violence—which together amounted to a substantial cause, and perpetuation of, the eventual Rohingya genocide..”

Facebook has previously admitted that its response to the violence in Myanmar was inadequate. “We weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence,” the company said in 2018.

The lawsuit at least theoretically represents an existential threat to Facebook, and no doubt the company will fight back hard. Still, its initial response emphasized its regrets and steps it has taken over the past several years to lessen the damage. A Meta spokesperson recently issued this statement to multiple news organizations: “We’re appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. We’ve built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw [the Burmese armed forces], disrupted networks manipulating public debate and taken action on harmful misinformation to help keep people safe. We’ve also invested in Burmese-language technology to reduce the prevalence of violating content. This work is guided by feedback from experts, civil society organizations and independent reports, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s findings and the independent Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned and released in 2018.”

No doubt Zuckerberg and company didn’t knowingly set out to contribute to a human-rights disaster that led to a rampage of rape and murder, with nearly 7,000 Rohingyas killed and 750,000 forced out of the country. Yet this tragedy was the inevitable consequence of the way Facebook works, and of its top executives’ obsession with growth over safety.

As University of Virginia media studies professor and author Siva Vaidhyanathan has put it: “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”

Maybe the prospect of being forced to pay for the damage they have done will, at long last, force Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest to do something about it.

Our latest podcast features Rhema Bland, director of the Ida B. Wells Society

Rhema Bland

Our guest on the latest episode of the “What Works” podcast is Rhema Bland, the first permanent director of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting at the University of North Carolina school of journalism. She was appointed in October 2020 after working in higher education as an adviser to student media programs. She is a veteran journalist who has reported and produced for CBS, the Florida Times-Union, WJCT and the New York Daily News.

The Wells Society was co-founded by award-winning journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ron Nixon and Topher Sanders. The society is named after the path-breaking Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who fearlessly covered the lynching of Black men and was present at the creation of the NAACP. The society’s mission is essential to the industry: to “increase the ranks, retention and profile of reporters and editors of color in the field of investigative reporting.” Bland and her colleagues host training seminars for journalists across the country, focusing on everything from entrepreneurship to racial inequality to COVID-19.

Also in this episode, Ellen Clegg talks about Ogden Newspapers’ purchase of Swift Communications, which publishes community papers in western ski towns as well as niche agricultural titles like the Goat Journal. And I share news about federal antitrust lawsuits that are in the works against Google and Facebook by more than 200 newspapers.

You can listen here and sign up via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever fine podcasts are found.

An unexpected tale of love and redemption

We all have our favorite movies about journalism. Best known are the heroic films, which portray reporters as indefatigable warriors on behalf of truth, justice and the American way. At the top of that particular heap are “Spotlight,” “The Post” and — at the very pinnacle — “All the President’s Men,” which inspired a generation of young journalists. For those who like a bit more nuance, there’s “Absence of Malice.” And if you prefer pure entertainment to instruction or uplift, there’s “His Girl Friday,” a romantic romp starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

I’ve enjoyed all these movies. But I have to admit that my favorite film about journalism is “Shattered Glass,” a docudrama about a troubled young man named Stephen Glass, who concocted an increasingly outlandish series of articles while he was working at The New Republic in the 1990s. Exposed at last, he was drummed out of the business. It was the sort of scandal that proved defining for a small publication like TNR.

Indeed, I was somewhat startled over the weekend when I saw the magazine described as “at the time an influential journal of the center left.” At the time. It’s been a long decline for a magazine co-founded by Walter Lippmann; I understand it’s doing better these days. And though there are multiple factors responsible for its marginalization, most of which have to do with the explosion of digital opinion journals, it was the Glass scandal that provided the magazine with its first swift kick down the stairs.

“Shattered Glass” never made the big time, but it’s long since become a staple of journalism ethics classes. (I don’t know why; “don’t make stuff up” can be dispensed with during the first 10 minutes of the first meeting of the semester.) People in journalism have long been passionate about it as well. I was once asked to take part in a panel discussion and found myself sitting next to Marty Peretz, then TNR’s owner and editor-in-chief, who, of course, is portrayed in the film. I remember telling him something like, “I agree with you about the commas.” (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) I don’t think he laughed.

All this is by way of my introduction to a story that you must read if you haven’t already. Titled “Loving Lies,” the piece — by Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact and no thus coddler of journalists who fabricate — appears in a digital publication called Air Mail, which has been around for a couple of years even though I hadn’t previously heard of it. (Since I first published this in the Members Newsletter, I’ve learned that it was co-founded by former New York Times journalist Alessandra Stanley and former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.) The quality looks to be quite high, as I would expect of an outlet able to commission a piece from someone as accomplished as Adair.

If it seems like I’m dancing around the main topic, it’s because I am. I don’t want to write any spoilers here. I will tell you that it’s one of the most moving stories about love and redemption that I can remember reading in a long time, and even that’s more than I ought to say. Just read it. You’ll need to provide your email address, but it’s absolutely worth doing so.

This post was first published as part of last week’s Media Nation Members Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.