Journalism is becoming a dangerous occupation

Photo (cc) 2012 by Mr.TinDC

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post reports on a disturbing phenomenon: television journalists coming under attack. “In recent months, local TV news crews have faced verbal and physical abuse while on the job,” he writes. “A few reporters have been injured. Some have been robbed or had their equipment damaged.”

Some of it is no doubt related to the “enemies of the people” rhetoric of former President Donald Trump, who made hatred of the press part of his authoritarian brand. And as Farhi notes, TV reporters are far more conspicuous than those of us who walk around with notebooks and smartphones, making them more likely to be subjected to violence.

It’s not just MAGA. One of our GBH News Muzzle Award winners this year were Black Lives Matter protesters in Burlington, Vermont, who stole copies of the alt-weekly Seven Days and burned some of them. No, that’s not the same as assaulting reporters. But I wouldn’t imagine that was a safe place to be for someone visibly identified as a reporter.

And let’s not forget it was just three years ago that a gunman killed five employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. On Thursday a jury found that the shooter, Jarrod Ramos, was criminally responsible, rejecting his insanity defense.

Journalism is still safer than working as a lumberjack. Neither, though, is it entirely hazard-free. It’s something we’ve begun to talk about with our students. I don’t know what the answer is. Bearing witness is a vital part of what we do. If we have to start barricading ourselves in secure newsrooms, a lot of what we do will be lost.

The case of the Northbridge intruder plays out exactly as you might have imagined

WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reports that the formerly unidentified 26-year-old man who walked into an unlocked house in Northbridge on Sunday has turned himself in. His story is exactly what you might have imagined it to be: “Esteban De Jesus Fonfrias-Soto told police he was led to the home in Northbridge, Massachusetts, by someone he believed to be female that he recently met on the social media app Snapchat.”

Fonfrias-Soto has been charged with breaking and entering in the daytime, a felony. Let’s hope that law enforcement quickly verifies his claims and drops the case.

Previous coverage.

A mysterious intruder sets off a scramble among local TV newscasts

It was a story made for local TV news. An unidentified man walked into an unlocked home in Northbridge on Sunday afternoon, sauntered around for 16 minutes while young children were inside, and then left without taking or disturbing anything. Video of him entering and then leaving was captured by a Ring home security camera.

The story also raises some questions about tone and emphasis. The man was a person of color in a community that’s more than 90% white. Did that contribute to the sense of alarm that some of the news reports conveyed?

Alerted to the story by George Chidi, a Northbridge native who now writes a Substack newsletter called the The Atlanta Objective, I watched reports on WBZ-TV (Channel 4), WCVB-TV (Channel 5), WHDH-TV (Channel 7), NBC10/NECN and WFXT-TV (Channel 25). In most of them, you had a sense that danger lurked, and that it is of paramount importance that the police identify the person.

Several, though, raised the possibility that the man had simply walked into the wrong house — and, based on video from around the neighborhood, the extent to which many of the houses looked alike was striking.

Channel 25 gave the story a whopping three minutes. But reporter Wale Aliyu, one of two Black journalists to cover the story (the other was Todd Kazakiewich of Channel 5), made the most of it, offering context that wasn’t available elsewhere. He opened by describing just how weird the story was. “I’ve never left an interview scratching my head the way I was tonight,” he said. The homeowner, Tarah Martell Schweitzer, who came across mainly as frightened in the other reports, offered comments that were more nuanced in Aliyu’s story:

I really am trying to see the good here and that it really was an honest mistake, because it doesn’t make sense to me in any other way. I don’t think somebody would case somebody’s house in the middle of broad daylight on a Sunday with people home. There were two motorcycles and a car in the driveway.

She even joked about asking the intruder to come back and help her and her husband finish assembling the swing set they were putting together.

Chidi told me via Facebook Messenger that he was troubled by the alarmist tone that he detected in the NBC10 coverage and on social media. “I’m sensitive to this because I grew up here. Literally,” he said. “That house is in the back yard of where I grew up.”

To be fair, no one wants to find out that a stranger has been walking around the inside of their home while their kids are inside and they’re out back unaware of what’s going on. And, since home video was available, it’s the sort of fare that’s irresistible for TV news directors.

The trick is to offer the right perspective. It was a strange story, not especially scary, that almost certainly was about a guy who walked into the wrong house by mistake. Indeed, as he is walking up to the door, he is staring intently at his smartphone, probably trying to figure out if he was at the right address.

Neither The Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald published anything about it, though the Globe’s free website, Boston.com, had a brief item. This was a pure made-for-television diversion, more entertainment than news, and that’s the way it should have been played. Kudos to Aliyu and Channel 25 for getting it right.

Brent Staples on how white newspapers perpetuated white supremacy

There’s an outstanding piece in The New York Times today by Brent Staples on the role of the press in perpetuating white supremacy. He writes:

Since the early 2000s, historically white newspapers in Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and North Carolina have apologized with varying degrees of candor for the roles they played in this history. When read end to end, these statements of confession attest to blatantly racist news coverage over a more than century-long period that encompasses the collapse of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the two world wars, the civil rights movement, the urban riots of the 1960s, the Vietnam era and beyond.

Read the whole thing.

BuzzFeed’s founder promises not to waste money on journalism again

Jonah Peretti. Photo (cc) 2019 by nrkbeta.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, offers a confession: news just isn’t as gosh-darn profitable as he had hoped it would be. Peretti has taken an axe to his respected news division, BuzzFeed News, and promises not to do it again.

“I feel like I learned from that mistake … you need to have more financial discipline in the short term to make sure you’re growing in a sustainable way,” he tells reporter Anna Nicolaou.

But as Josh Marshall, the publisher of Talking Points Memo, noted several months ago, there’s never going to be enough money in journalism if you’re relying on venture capital, as Peretti did, or on going public, as he’s doing now. The solution is a slow expansion, most likely built on reader revenue. That’s never been Peretti’s style.

Unfortunately, what Peretti doesn’t say in his FT interview is that he could use revenue from BuzzFeed, the viral site best known for cat videos and listicles, in order to subsidize a first-class news operation. Because for people like Peretti, it’s all about the bottom line — as he showed in April, when he acquired HuffPost and started gutting it.

In Georgia, a partisan news site replaces local journalism with false election claims

Here’s what happens when you don’t have a reliable source of local news in your community: partisan websites that look like local news pop up in order to push a political point of view. Most of them are right-wing, although there are also a few that lean left.

Last week NPR’s Stephen Fowler had a terrific piece about The Georgia Star News, a Trump-oriented project that is aligned with Steve Bannon, although it doesn’t sound like Bannon has an official role. “It’s very populist, it’s very nationalist, it’s very MAGA, it’s very American First,” Bannon reportedly said.

The lead story right now: “Merrick Garland’s Case Against Georgia Is a Loser, According to Legal Scholars and Journalists,” aggregated from The Federalist and opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

What the Star News and sites like it do is work the media food chain. The website’s publisher, John Fredericks, has a radio talk show whose guests have included Bannon and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Fredericks’ talk show and website haved pushed false information about absentee ballots. (According to Fredericks’ website, his show was recently booted off YouTube. Gee, I wonder why?)

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up for the integrity of Georgia’s elections when it really mattered, nevertheless called for an investigation based on the Star News’ story. From there the story was injected into the mainstream, since legitimate media outlets are in the habit of quoting Raffensperger. And, before you know it, Trump himself was praising the Star News for “the incredible reporting you have done.”

Fredericks claims his operation is profitable thanks to an injection of ads from Republican politicians.

As these “pink slime” operations go, Fredericks’ is rather modest — eight sites, compared to the 1,300 documented last fall by The New York Times. And Fredericks’ sites are statewide — they’re not promising the sort of hyperlocal news that, say, a right-wing site like the Macon (Georgia) Times does.

Still, the Star News points to the dangers of what can happen when we lose reliable local and regional news.

USA Today takes a cautious step into digital subscriptions

USA Today’s TV-like news boxes were once ubiquitous. Can a paywall take their place? Photo (cc) 2011 by JoeInSouthernCA.

USA Today is dipping its toe into the paid-content waters. Our last free national digital newspaper has announced that it’s going to start charging for certain types of premium content:

Much of the content on USA TODAY will still be free. But you’ll find a selection of stories each day marked “subscriber only.” These will be exclusive investigations, sophisticated visual explainers, thought-provoking takes on the news and immersive storytelling.

According to The New York Times, a digital subscription to USA Today will cost $10 a month after an initial discount, or $13 if you want an ad-free version.

It will be interesting to see if it works. USA Today is a perfectly fine paper, but it’s not quite in the class of the Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Its principal attraction has been that it’s free, making it a quality source of national news that can easily be cited. When I link to a story in USA Today, I do so knowing that my readers will be able to access it.

On the other hand, we know that free news supported entirely by ads doesn’t work for digital newspapers, as Craigslist, Google and Facebook have destroyed the value of online advertising. I can understand why Gannett, USA Today’s corporate owner, decided it was time to get on board. I’m just not sure why someone would choose USA Today over one of the other national papers.

Then, too, USA Today’s traditional distribution routes no longer work, either. I haven’t seen any of the paper’s once-ubiquitous news boxes in years. The paper was also something generally offered free by hotels, but it could be a long time before business travel recovers from the COVID pandemic.

Gannett, as we know, is a debt-addled chain that has been slashing the newsrooms of its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies, most of which already have paywalls. The USA Today announcement says that the paper has unique value because it can draw on the resources, such as they are, of the USA Today Network. But those of us who read a Gannett community paper know the journalism flows in both directions, with out-of-town news from other Gannett papers filling up space that ought to be devoted to local coverage.

My skepticism aside, I wish USA Today the best. I know that it produces good journalism, and perhaps it appeals to those who don’t like the Times’ snark, the Post’s breathlessness or the Journal’s focus on business coverage. We’ll see whether it works.

Former Murdoch lieutenant states the obvious: Fox News is toxic and dangerous

Rupert Murdoch. 2011 photo in the public domain by David Shankbone.

What’s interesting about Preston Padden’s unburdening of himself with regard to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News isn’t in what he says. It’s that he said anything at all.

Padden, a former high-ranking executive in the Murdoch empire, wrote a commentary for The Daily Beast earlier this week in which he lamented the Fox News Channel’s devolution from “a responsible and truthful center-right news network” into what it is today: a propaganda arm of Trump Republicans who promote the Big Lie about the 2020 election, peddle deadly falsehoods about COVID-19, and stir up racial animosity by fear-mongering about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. (He should have mentioned climate change while he was at it.) Padden writes:

Over the past nine months I have tried, with increasing bluntness, to get Rupert to understand the real damage that Fox News is doing to America. I failed, and it was arrogant and naïve to ever have thought that I could succeed.

No kidding. Now, it’s true that Fox News wasn’t quite the toxic cesspool that it has become in the age of Trump. Prime-time talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren were reasonable and dealt for the most part with facts. Sean Hannity was paired with a liberal, the late Alan Colmes.

If you squinted, you could make a case that Fox was a right-wing version of what the liberal network MSNBC is today. But I don’t know that it was ever “a responsible and truthful center-right news network”; more like a hard-right outlet whose most outlandish outbursts were at least grounded in some semblance of truth.

Now, though, it’s nothing but lies, racism and conspiracy theories, especially during prime time, led by onetime rational thinker-turned-white supremacist Tucker Carlson. Padden attribute this to Murdoch’s “deep-seated vein of anti-establishment/contrarian thinking,” but he’s giving Rupe way too much credit. It’s money and ratings, and nothing more. That’s all it’s ever been.

Nikole Hannah-Jones says no to UNC, accepts tenured position at Howard instead

Howard University. Photo (cc) 2008 by AgnosticPreachersKid.

Walter Hussman Jr.’s campaign against New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones ended up working after all. Days after the University of North Carolina trustees finally stood up to Hussman and voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, the Pulitzer Prize winner has announced that she’s accepting a tenured position at Howard University instead.

In an interview with NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones said that even though large swaths of the UNC community were in her corner, she ultimately decided not to accept the offer because of a lack of courage on the part of the top leadership.

“The faculty, the student body, alums — were trying to do right by me,” Hannah-Jones told Joe Killian. “I know the university is caught up in a political system that it doesn’t desire.” But, she added, “Had there been some political courage on behalf of the leadership of the university, that also could have made my decision different.”

Hannah-Jones is also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. According to an announcement by the MacArthur Foundation, Hannah-Jones and another highly regarded Black journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, will join the Howard faculty — Hannah-Jones as a tenured professor at the Cathy Hughes School of Community, where she will fill the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, Coates as a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Hannah-Jones will also found the Center for Journalism and Democracy.

Hussman, a major UNC donor and the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, objected to the Times’ 1619 Project, which Hannah-Jones conceived of and wrote the lead essay for. The collection of essays, a reimagining of American history with slavery at its center, has been targeted by right-wing critics and led to Donald Trump’s formation of the widely mocked 1776 Commission, dismantled by Joe Biden as soon as he became president.

Hannah-Jones and Coates are among our finest journalists, and their work has been crucial to understanding issues such as the lasting legacy of slavery, reparations and the effect of redlining on the wealth disparities between Black and white households.

The pressures exerted by Hussman, as well as the cowardice shown by the UNC trustees and administration, show why we still need institutions like Howard, the best known and most respected HBCU in the country.

Update: Hannah-Jones has released a remarkable statement.

Previous coverage.

Three Boston Globe unions raise specter of a possible strike

In the latest development in protracted labor strife at The Boston Globe, the Boston Newspaper Guild this morning issued a statement expressing solidarity with two other unions that represent Globe employees, the Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists. The Guild, which represents the newsroom, the advertising staff and several other departments, also raised the specter of a possible strike.

“All employees at The Boston Globe deserve respect,” the three unions said in a letter to management. “Yet, union members representing Globe staff have experienced management’s hostile anti-worker posture during the course of each union’s recent and protracted contract negotiations. We are coming together to say enough is enough.”

In response, Claudia Henderson, chief human resources officer for Boston Globe Media Partners, said in an email: “The Boston Globe has been committed to negotiating with all of our labor partners to provide workplace benefits and protections while ensuring our ability to continue our growth and investment in all of our newsrooms.”

Henderson’s full statement appears below. But first, the Guild’s statement:

Workforce unrest spreads at Boston Globe

Three different unions denounce “hostile” and “harmful” tactics by executives at New England’s largest newspaper

BOSTON, MA – Workers from three different labor organizations at New England’s largest newspaper are joining in chorus to decry working conditions and “harmful tactics” by John Henry and Linda Pizzuti Henry’s executive team. Together, the three groups represent hundreds of workers in nearly every department throughout The Boston Globe’s operations, including truck drivers, reporters, photographers and more.

After drawing heat for engaging former President Donald J. Trump campaign’s law firm of choice to handle labor negotiations, which prompted a “scathing rebuke” from Globe journalists about ethical concerns presented by the anti-worker firm’s hiring, Henry and Pizzuti Henry now face increasing criticism from beyond just the Guild union that represents newsroom staff.

Leaders from the Teamsters union and the International Association of Machinists have now joined with members in the Boston Newspaper Guild in calling the treatment of workers “dismissive” and “disrespectful” in a joint letter sent to top Globe brass on Thursday, including Henry and Pizzuti Henry.

“By continuing to engage in actions that foment strife within the company, you run the risk of rupturing that trust and of continuing to lose the talented workers who are the foundation of the company’s recent and future success,” said the letter to Boston Globe executives, which was signed by Stephen Sullivan, President of GCC/Teamsters Local 3 Boston; Michael Vartabedian, Assistant Directing Business Representative of the International Association of Machinists, District 15; and Scott Steeves, President of the Boston Newspaper Guild (BNG-TNG/CWA Local 31245).

In a recent internal poll, an overwhelming super-majority of members from the largest of those units, the Boston Newspaper Guild, said they would support a strike authorization vote if one were called by their bargaining committee.

“All employees at The Boston Globe deserve respect. Yet, union members representing Globe staff have experienced management’s hostile anti-worker posture during the course of each union’s recent and protracted contract negotiations,” read the letter. “We are coming together to say enough is enough.”

The communication marks a turning point as it represents the first coordinated action by the three different unions, all citing similar concerns with the approach being taken by Henry and Pizzuti Henry. Henry and Pizzuti Henry also own the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League.

In the spring, members of the Boston Newspaper Guild recorded a key victory when journalists at the Globe-operated health news website STAT joined the Guild. Previously, Pizzuti Henry’s announcement as the next CEO of the publication was clouded by the labor strife that has overtaken the Globe.

Workers at the Globe held out some hope that Pizzuti Henry would move on from the hostile, anti-worker policies being pushed before her tenure, but Globe employees say that the new CEO has failed to reconcile the differences causing an increasing schism at the publication.

Now, with multiple unions coalescing in the form of today’s letter and with talk of a potential strike vote, Pizzuti Henry and her executives face a mounting crisis of confidence at the Globe, even as management touts their increasing digital subscriber rates.

The members of all three unions have each been attempting to negotiate fair contracts at the Globe for more than two years. The Globe has generally failed to disclose its financial ties to Jones Day when running stories related to the controversial law firm and its suits, including those related to the 2020 election.

The executives named in the letter to Globe executives included:

Linda P. Henry, Chief Executive Officer, Boston Globe
John W. Henry, Owner, Boston Globe
Arch Carpenter, Senior Vice President of Print Operations
Claudia Henderson, Chief Human Resources Officer, Boston Globe Media Partners
Dan Krockmalnic, General Counsel, Boston Globe Media Partners
David Carillo, Chief Financial Officer, The Henry Organization
David Dahl, Deputy Managing Editor, Boston Globe
Jason Tuohey, Managing Editor – Digital, Boston Globe
Rich Ford, Director, Total Rewards
Trish Dunn, Partner, Jones Day

And, finally, Henderson’s statement:

The Boston Globe has been committed to negotiating with all of our labor partners to provide workplace benefits and protections while ensuring our ability to continue our growth and investment in all of our newsrooms. We are incredibly proud of the way this entire organization has continuously served our community. Throughout the time that we have been bargaining, we have sought to create a more evolved ethics  policy, and have created policies to allow for additional benefits during the pandemic, including $2,000 for employees with young children, $500 for home office set ups, care.com memberships, and additional days off for staff  to use in whatever ways work best for employees. We look forward to getting to resolution on all contracts and will always value the partnerships.