A wary but grateful look back at 2020, the worst year ever

COVID-19 testing. 2020 photo via U.S. Air Force.

Previously published at GBH News.

If we’re lucky, we’ll never encounter another time as awful as 2020. A raging pandemic, economic collapse, white racism in the face of a long-overdue reckoning with racial justice and an authoritarian-minded president who is still plotting to overturn his decisive defeat have all conspired to make this a year to put behind us.

Then there were the personal tragedies. “I remember that first Thanksgiving, the empty chair,” said President-elect Joe Biden, a man who knows tragedy in his bones and in his soul. The lost job. The lost business. The lost hope.

During the past year, I’ve tried to capture some of that — the lows as well as a few reasons for optimism. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns. They’re in chronological order, starting with the world we lost and ending with a glimpse of better days to come.

The strangling of local radio, Jan. 21. The New Year had barely begun when we learned that iHeartMedia, a conglomerate that owns some 850 stations, was gutting its properties. Among them: Boston’s venerable WBZ (AM 1030), the city’s last remaining commercial news station, which laid off several longtime journalists. For-profit radio has been sliding downhill since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which effectively removed caps on how many stations a company can own. As with newspapers, a few giant corporations took on massive amounts of debt to build empires, slashing costs so they could pay their creditors. Employees and listeners were the losers.

The last normal week, March 4. I spent Super Tuesday in Ukiah, California, covering a packed event in a bar (imagine that) hosted by The Mendocino Voice, a small website that was transitioning from for-profit to cooperative ownership. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” publisher Kate Maxwell told those on hand. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.” By the end of the week, I found myself accompanying Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann to Mendocino County’s first news conference about what was then called “the novel coronavirus.” A day later I returned home on a half-empty flight wondering what was coming next.

A campus empties out, March 17. Northeastern University, where I’m a journalism professor, takes its spring break the first week of March. Despite the increasingly ominous news, we actually resumed classes the following week. All of us, though, had the sense that a shutdown was imminent — and it was, as we all had to scramble quickly to move our classes online. This fall, like most of my colleagues, I taught partly in person, partly online, getting tested twice a week. And I am filled with gratitude every day to be one of the lucky few who is still employed and working in a relatively safe environment.

Fox News endangers lives, April 22. Rupert Murdoch’s cable news station has become a dangerous behemoth, promulgating all manner of misinformation and disinformation about climate change, Hillary Clinton and the awesome wonderfulness of President Donald Trump. Never, though, was Fox News more of a menace than it was in the spring of 2020, when prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham promoted the toxic idea that COVID-19 (it finally had a name) was a “hoax.” They disdained mask-wearing and cheered on the armed right-wingers who protested the shutdown, falsely claiming that COVID was nothing to worry about. “The question is why are our leaders hurting us on purpose,” Carlson told his viewers. “And the answer is: Because they can.”

Avoiding a 2016 repeat, May 27. With Biden having vanquished his Democratic primary opponents and building a solid polling lead over Trump, I asked whether the media could avoid the mistakes they made in 2016 — obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s emails and elevating her minor transgressions so that they appeared to be as serious as Trump’s. In fact, the media appeared to have learned some lessons. Sexual assault charges brought against Biden by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, and, later in the year, Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to make some sort of criminal connection between Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine were both quickly dismissed as lacking any evidence. The next question: How will the press cover the Biden presidency?

A newspaper laid low by racism, June 17. Alexis Johnson, a young Black reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had been covering the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Then she tweeted out a humorous but pointed observation comparing the damage caused by looters to the mess left behind by tailgaters at a Kenny Chesney concert. She was taken off the protest beat for supposedly failing to maintain her objectivity — a ludicrous overreaction met with protests by her fellow journalists and the community. Before long, Johnson had left for Vice News and the Post-Gazette had a new executive editor: Stan Wischnowski, who’d just left as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer after he approved an insensitive “Buildings Matter, Too” headline. Wischnowski was actually an upgrade over his predecessor, Keith Burris, who continues to run the editorial pages. But he was hardly the sort of change that was called for under the circumstances.

In the dark on Beacon Hill, July 16. Massachusetts is just one of four states whose legislatures are exempt from public-records laws. Cities, towns, counties and state executive agencies must turn over payroll records, contracts, internal communications and other documents when asked to do so by journalists or ordinary citizens. But not the Legislature. “The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” said Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. And so it remains. In the fall, Northeastern journalism students asked every legislative candidate whether they favored ending the exemption. Most of those who answered said they did — but only 71 of the 257 candidates bothered to respond despite repeated email and phone requests.

Local news, saner views, Nov. 11. With the election over and the Trump era drawing to an end, I explored the idea of whether a renewed focus on community life could help overcome the hyperpolarization that has ripped the culture apart at the national level. Before that can happen, though, we need to find ways to revive local journalism. One modest solution would be to create a special state commission to study the problem in Massachusetts and make some recommendations. As 2020 draws to a close, the legislation that would create that commission remains in limbo.

Linda Henry takes charge, Nov. 18. Some five months after Vinay Mehra exited as president of Boston Globe Media Partners, managing director Linda Pizzuti Henry got a title enhancement: she was named chief executive of the company, which comprises The Boston Globe, Stat News and Boston.com. Although the COVID-related advertising meltdown hurt the Globe as it did every other media company, 2020 turned out to be a good year for owners John and Linda Henry. The Globe’s paid digital circulation passed the long-sought 200,000 mark, and Stat News emerged as a national leader on COVID coverage. Moreover, the company employs about 300 full-time journalists across its three platforms — a far higher number than would be expected under chain ownership. That said, the company continues its unseemly battle against its union employees, a situation that should have been resolved long ago.

Back to a better future, Dec. 2. Are there reasons to be optimistic? We all hope so. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will restore civility to the White House. A COVID vaccine has brought the end of the pandemic within sight. But what about beyond that? In a new book, “The Upswing,” Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett argue that the selfishness that led to the original Gilded Age eventually gave way to the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement — and that it can happen again.

We are entering what is likely to be a devastating winter — what Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, predicted could be “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation.” We need to take care of each other and get beyond the sickness and fear that have come to dominate our lives. And we have to tell ourselves that things will get better — and work to make it come true. What alternative do we have?

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 2021.

Today’s America is more broken than our parents’. But a new book gives us reason to hope.

Illustration by Emily Judem / GBH News

Previously published at GBH News.

Life in the 21st century is defined by certain toxic realities. Extreme income inequality, political polarization, the breakdown of community life and the rise of narcissistic individualism have all helped create a meaner, more narrow-minded America than the one we — or, depending on your age, your parents — grew up in.

This fall from grace didn’t occur overnight. Our devolution from hope and idealism to anger and existential dread took many decades. It didn’t end with the defeat of Donald Trump, nor will it end with a vaccine for COVID. But it can end. We know it can, because it’s happened before.

That’s the optimistic thesis of Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s book “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” (Simon & Schuster). Their argument, in brief, is that the Gilded Age of the late 19th century looked very much like today. Or as they put it: “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed — all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being.”

Starting in the Progressive Era, we began moving toward greater equality, political comity and community-mindedness. And despite a few blips along the way, these trends continued into the mid-1960s before beginning their long slide into the abyss.

Putnam and Garrett’s grand theory is based on deep statistical analysis encompassing such disparate data points as party votes in Congress, attendance at religious services and Googling how often words like “responsibility” and “rights” appear in books over time. Each of the four markers they measure have moved almost in unison in an upside-down “U” curve — uphill in a positive direction until just past mid-century and then downhill to the present.

The authors do not fall into the trap of nostalgia, as they point out that the “U” curves played out very differently for African Americans and women. Based on statistics alone, for example, it’s clear that Black Americans’ economic and political prospects improved in the decades before the civil-rights movement just as they did for white people — but with a significant caveat.

Putnam and Garrett are careful to note that a lot of the progress that Black people made in income, education and voting was the result not of a general improvement in social conditions but, rather, of the Great Migration, in which some 70 million Blacks moved from the racist South to the somewhat less racist North. And while the downward trend that affected society as a whole starting in the late ’60s affected Black people as well, the authors point out that white backlash was a significant contributing factor.

“The Upswing” complements another recent book on our downward slide, Kurt Andersen’s “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America” (Random House). Putnam and Garrett’s work is built upon a sturdy mountain of quantitative research. “Evil Geniuses,” by contrast, is a morality play, the story of how political figures such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the economist Milton Friedman and the conservative activist Lewis Powell (later named to the Supreme Court), supercharged with money from the Koch brothers, conspired to degrade the environment, deregulate business and make the rich richer.

But whereas Andersen is aware of the parallels between Trump’s America and the Gilded Age, Putnam and Garrett’s unique contribution is to show exactly how similar the two eras are, and to chart the forces that, for a time, created a fairer, more equal country — among them the reforms of the Progressive and New Deal eras and the leveling effects of World War II. (Not to make too much of that — the authors show the upward swing continued well past what would have been expected if it were only a wartime phenomenon.)

So what went wrong? Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, and Garrett, a one-time student of Putnam’s who’s now a writer and social entrepreneur, are too careful to ascribe any single cause. As for the most obvious candidate, they note that rising income inequality is actually a lagging indicator, coming slightly after the other social markers turned south.

Instead, they speculate that it was the chaos the 1960s and mid-’70s that’s to blame. The years between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the economic malaise of Jimmy Carter’s presidency were defined by war, racial unrest, a violent protest movement, more assassinations and a general sense of dislocation and confusion. They describe the 125-year arc they trace as “I-we-I.” In the 1970s, the pendulum swung decisively back to “I,” with community giving way to individual pursuits. “The Boomers who had entered the Sixties in idealistic togetherness,” they write, “exited the Seventies in grumpy self-centeredness.”

One omission puzzled me. The media get barely a mention in “The Upswing,” either for the salutary effects of local journalism on community-building or for the harm caused by the rise of influential right-wing propaganda outlets such as Fox News (and now Newsmax and OANN) and the algorithmic, anger-fueled monster that is Facebook.

This was especially surprising given Putnam’s past work linking civic life and local news. In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” he found a strong correlation between activities such as voting, coaching youth sports and attending religious services and with the desire to keep up on community affairs. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Putnam and Garrett acknowledge that the political polarization they decry in mainly a right-wing phenomenon, as they write that “bipartisanship has disappeared from American politics over the last half century largely because the Republican Party has become steadily more extreme.” The media’s role in sparking this asymmetric polarization would have been worth exploring.

The omission becomes all the more glaring in Putnam and Garrett’s final chapter, on possible solutions that might start bending the curve upward again. Mainly it consists of vignettes about Progressive Era and New Deal heroes such as Frances Perkins, Paul Harris (a creator of the Rotary Club) and Ida B. Wells. Articulating a vision for how to get back to “we” may be beyond anyone’s ability. But surely media reform needs to be part of that vision.

“The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century,” Putnam and Garrett write, “is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we,’ and back again to ‘I.’”

They have written a valuable, fascinating overview of how we got here. By following the story to well back before the beginning of the slide, they’ve revealed a cyclical nature to the dysfunction that now pervades the national landscape. We live in a time when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos increased his fortune by $48 billion during the first few months of the pandemic while millions lost their jobs and went hungry; when wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID and simply acknowledging the outcome of the election are seen as partisan acts.

The promise of “The Upswing” is that we’ve been here before and got out of it through goodwill and hard work. Can we do it again? Even with decency and normality returning to the White House, it’s hard to see how that’s going to happen.

Then again, maybe the most important message that Putnam and Garrett have to offer is that, ultimately, it’s up to us.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

A simple step to ease the transition of ex-prisoners returning to society

The lack of an official ID isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d think of when it comes to the challenges facing ex-prisoners returning to society. In fact, though, the lack of an ID can prevent them from starting work or getting an apartment — key steps in moving forward with their lives. As Alexis Farmer writes for CommonWealth Magazine:

Removing the time lag between leaving a correctional facility and restarting one’s life with the necessary documents in hand is critical to a successful transition. During a global pandemic, the urgency to remove bureaucratic hurdles to re-entry is more important.

This past summer and fall I had the privilege of serving as Farmer’s mentor through the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. I serve on the board of advisers at the institute, which places brilliant young graduate students at state and local government agencies for summer internships in the hopes that they’ll consider public service as a career.

Farmer, a master’s student in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, was an intern in Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens (ORC), which supports formerly incarcerated citizens in their transition to the community. Her commentary is a significant contribution to our thinking about criminal justice.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Why the crisis within the Boy Scouts of America could lead to a scouting revival

2010 photo by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Previously published at GBH News.

Could the Boy Scouts of America be heading into its final days? It sure looks that way. After decades of horrendous and widespread sexual abuse, documented in secret reports known as the “perversion files,” it appears that the moment of reckoning has arrived.

Among those of us for whom scouting was a formative and positive part of our lives, it’s a sad development. Yet there’s just no defending what took place. Earlier this year, the BSA declared bankruptcy in order to protect itself from mounting civil suits. A bankruptcy judge set a deadline of this past Monday for victims to file claims. More than 92,000 people responded.

How large is that number? According to The New York Times, that’s 10 times as many as the number of people who claim to have been sexually assaulted within the Catholic Church. The church scandal has done enormous damage and continues to reverberate, with questions now being raised about Pope John Paul II’s involvement in covering up for a renegade cardinal. Yet the rot within the BSA appears to be much more pervasive.

This is personal for me. My son is an Eagle scout. I’m an Eagle scout. I know what a difference scouting can make in the lives of boys and young men. (The BSA was almost exclusively male for most of its history but began admitting girls in 2018.) Scouting introduced me to hiking and backpacking, which became lifelong passions. Our adult leaders were honorable, decent men.

The sexual abuse wasn’t a secret, of course, but it always seemed to involve some other troop in some other town. According to the BSA, 130 million Americans have taken part in scouting over the years, and no doubt the vast majority of them emerged better for the experience. But that doesn’t excuse the reality that some boys were raped, and that the organization covered it up rather than exposing the evil-doers.

“The Boy Scout policy for decades was not to report to law enforcement,” Paul Mones, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents many of the victims, told Wade Goodwin of NPR. “In fact, they allowed many of these men to go quietly into that good night and leave. The Boy Scouts have never given a straight answer as to why they never reported to law enforcement.”

In some respects, it’s a surprise that the crisis was so widespread. As an adult leader, I had to go through the BSA’s youth-protection training program several times, and it struck me as high-quality and thorough. The organization also insisted on what it referred to as “two deep” leadership — no scouting trip was to have any fewer than two adult leaders on hand at any time. In fact, we used to talk about the need for four leaders — two to accompany a scout if he got hurt and had to go home and two to continue the activity with the other boys. Obviously, though, those rules were not universally followed, and terrible crimes were the result.

Now, we’re all aware that sexual abuse hasn’t been the only problem with the BSA, although it’s by far the most serious. Until recently, the organization banned gay scouts and adult leaders, a blight on its record that it did not erase until 2015. And the Boy Scouts continue to prohibit atheists from joining — a rule that is not only cruel and discriminatory but that is also unenforceable unless a scout decides to speak up. Atheist scouts are rewarded for keeping silent and punished for being honest, which is not exactly in keeping with the ideals of scouting.

There is something deeply anachronistic about scouting. A lot of us weren’t especially thrilled about the quasi-military uniforms even back in the 1960s and ’70s. At its best, though, scouting instills teamwork, discipline and a love for the outdoors. It’s also a refuge for kids who don’t fit in with youth sports or other activities.

Fortunately, scouting is not dependent on the BSA for its continued existence. The Girl Scouts are very much with us; my wife and daughter were both active, and it strikes me as a much better run program than the Boy Scouts.

There are also programs that are similar to the Boy Scouts, some of which were set up as a breakaway groups. For instance, the Baden-Powell Service Association, named after the founder of scouting, “welcomes everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion (or no-religion)” in order “provide a positive learning environment within the context of democratic participation and social justice.”

Now, that sounds like scouting as it was originally intended. Perhaps what we really need is for the BSA to disappear so that the true spirit of scouting can reassert itself. Because, ultimately, what we’re talking about isn’t an organization but an idea.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Sports and justice

The question is what else will and should the players do beyond boycotting games? The NBA has some real leaders, from LeBron James to Jaylen Brown. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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Reading the Declaration of Independence with Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

One of my favorite Fourth of July traditions is reading the Declaration of Independence in The Boston Globe. Last year I added to that Frederick Douglass’ great 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Having just read it again, I was struck by the extent to which the speech summarizes some of the most important themes of Douglass’ public mission, as laid out in David W. Blight’s 2018 biography: his belief that the Constitution was, at root, an anti-slavery document, a view that was far from universal among his fellow Abolitionists; his hatred for the hypocrisy of the American church’s embrace of slavery; and his fundamental optimism, on display in the opening section, in which he talks about believing the country could change because it was still so young.

Then there is this great passage, which comes about halfway through:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Read it. Slavery may be part of the past. But at this moment of heightened attention to racism and how it continues to affect the lives of Black Americans, Douglass’ speech takes on new relevance.

And don’t miss this video of Douglass’ descendants reading parts of his speech.

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A flawed argument for reopening colleges this fall

Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, is getting roasted on Twitter for writing an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that colleges and universities should reopen this fall.

I have to say that I find her ideas less than compelling. For instance: She invokes the standard warning that “of course we still won’t be able to have large classes in large lecture halls.” But small classes are usually held in small rooms — and, at least in my experience, those rooms have inadequate or non-existent ventilation. How is that any better?

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A prescient book on the future of urban life in a changing world

The New York Times has a front-page story today on why big cities are looking less attractive in the age of pandemic.

They should have interviewed my friend Catherine Tumber, who wrote a prescient book about this a few years ago called “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” I hope you’ll give it a read.

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Some thoughts about the Boy Scouts’ move to admit girls

Photo (cc) 2013 by Phoebe Baker

I’m no longer involved with the Boy Scouts (not boycotting; just at a different stage of my life), but I continue to take an interest in what they’re up to. Admitting girls and giving them a chance to become Eagle Scouts strikes me as odd, given that both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts were set up with the idea that there is value in having single-gender youth programs. The Girl Scouts aren’t admitting boys, so this comes across as an effort by the Boy Scouts to encroach on the Girl Scouts’ turf in order to bolster their own shrinking programs.

When our kids were younger, I was a Boy Scout leader and my wife was a Girl Scout leader. It was my impression that the Girl Scouts was a better-run program with none of the issues that bedeviled the Boy Scouts such as its longtime ban on gay scouts and leaders (since lifted) and atheists (still in effect).

I’m not sure how the Girl Scouts can respond to this latest move. The Boy Scouts may well have some success in recruiting girls who would rather be in a program integrated by gender. In our Facebook discussion, a few people have suggested that the Boy Scouts have a more robust outdoors program than the Girl Scouts, and that girls interested in that should be welcomed. Still, I’m skeptical as to whether this is a good move.

Over at The Boston Globe, Derrick Jackson offers a different perspective.

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Remembering Muhammad Ali

Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his first defeat of Sonny Liston. Photo via Wikipedia.

There was a time when those of us in our 50s and 60s cared about boxing. The one and only reason for that was Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74. Ali was a great boxer, but it was his persona that made him so appealing: smart, funny, antiwar, an outspoken voice against racism.

I was not a huge boxing fan. Besides, in those days boxing was a big business, and you couldn’t see major bouts without paying money to watch it on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater. I never did that. But I remember organizing a betting pool among my fellow ninth-graders in Middleborough for the first fight between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971.

My most vivid Ali memory also did not involve seeing him actually fight. His epic battle with George Foreman in what is now Congo took place on the night that I attended my first Bruce Springsteen concert—October 30, 1974. Everyone was convinced that Foreman would crush the aging, smaller Ali. After three and a half thrilling, exhausting hours of the 25-year-old Bruce, the promoter came out at 12:30 a.m. to announce that Ali had won. Pandemonium ensued.

No one cares about boxing anymore, and I think Ali had a lot to do with that, too. When he was young, it seemed as though he never even got hit. In the latter stages of his career, unfortunately, his strategy—as in the Foreman fight—was to absorb a terrible beating, and then to come out swinging once his opponent was exhausted. It almost certainly led to his Parkinson’s, and it’s a big reason why boxing has moved off center stage and into the shadows.

You have to wonder if football will be next.