It’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the White House Correspondents Dinner

Previously published at WGBH News.

You are forgiven if you thought this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a rerun. As with previous episodes, it featured a comedian whose entirely predictable raunchy fare came in for harsh, hypocritical denunciations; revulsion over the spectacle of media elites partying with politicians, lobbyists, and celebrities; and, of course, the ritual calls to end this benighted bacchanal once and for all.

“It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover, alongside Hollywood celebrities who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “But in the current era, it’s become close to suicidal for the press’s credibility.”

My purpose here today is not to offer yet another critique of the comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine. For what it’s worth, I thought she was pretty good. Despite what you may have heard, she did not mock the physical appearance of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Instead, she delivered an R-rated political monologue of the sort that should have surprised no one. “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man,’” Judd Apatow, a writer, director, and comedian, told The New York Times.

So why the fake outrage? It has a lot to do with what the event has become: a celebration of money and power so cut off from the lives of ordinary people that it has come define everything that we hate about Washington.

Earlier this week I rewatched “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week,” a 2015 documentary by the former Politico journalist Patrick Gavin. The film offers an exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) look behind the scenes at how the dinner metastasized from the first modest gathering in 1921, attended by 50 people, to the bought-and-paid-for spectacle it has become: a five-day affair marked by some two dozen parties and, of course, the dinner itself, which now draws some 2,600 people. I have showed it to several of my classes, and they are invariably appalled by the wretched excess that’s on display.

Not to mention the rude manners. Gavin devotes part of the film to showing us Washington reporters and their guests talking over virtually everything that’s taking place on the podium: kids winning scholarships (a total of $100,000 is awarded each year, which is, as Gavin notes, a pittance compared to the opulence of the event itself), Ray Charles performing “Georgia on My Mind,” even a Marine color guard.

“Washington audiences liquored up want to talk to each other,” explains George Condon of National Journal. “They don’t want to listen to the entertainers.”

What is truly revolting, though, takes place away from the dinner. Because, as Gavin shows, the event has long since devolved into decadence. The real stars of the week aren’t the reporters, aren’t the politicians, aren’t even the celebrities. Rather, they are the corporations and lobbyists. “It’s about influence and playing the Washington game,” the publishing and advertising executive Kenny Day tells Gavin.

As Gavin acknowledges, even at the time that he was making his film there was a sense that the dinner had begun its slow slide to irrelevance. A signal moment in that decline, he says, was former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw’s outspoken criticism in 2012. “If there’s ever an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” Brokaw said. “It is time to rethink it.”

Of course, that slide has only accelerated under President Trump, who — unlike virtually all of his predecessors — has stayed away from the dinner. No doubt his absence added to the controversy over Michelle Wolf. Whereas previous comedians who got rough directed their barbs at the president (Don Imus with Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert with George W. Bush), Wolf was stuck with picking on Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump. As CNN media analyst Brian Stelter put it, “The president is usually the center of gravity at the dinner, and the comedian serves as the counter-balance. But with Trump absent, the dinner is off-balance.”

The result was an impossible situation for the press corps, which came off as sycophantic and nasty at the same time. “It takes some doing to emerge from one event painted as simultaneously partisan and toothless, elitist and crude, adversarial and complicit,” wrote New York Times television critic James Poniewozik. “But the dinner somehow pulls it off.”

The White House Correspondents Dinner and all that goes with it became an embarrassment years ago, and it’s only getting worse. So what is the solution? Get rid of it. Just get rid of it. Drive a wooden stake through its corrupt and malignant heart.

Enough.

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‘Moguls’ world tour coming to New York and Cape Ann

I’m very excited to let you know that I’ll be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Association of Newspaper Distributors, or AAIND, in New York at noon this coming Thursday, May 3.

On Sunday, May 6, I’ll be part of a free panel discussion called “Journalism in the Age of Fake News and Truth Telling,” to be held at 3 p.m. at the Rockport Public Library, 17 School St. The event is being sponsored by Literary Cape Ann. A book signing will follow.

A complete list of events is online here.

What we know so far about the Kevin Cullen investigation

With Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen’s fate in the hands of outside investigators, I thought I would pull together what we know so far. I’ll begin with an internal memo that editor Brian McGrory sent to the staff late last week, a copy of which I obtained from several sources. We talked about the memo Friday on “Beat the Press” (above).

I hope you can understand our desire to seek facts before we address the assertions that have been publicly raised about the work of our colleague, Kevin Cullen. That said, I want to offer an update on the process. We’ve enlisted Kathleen Carroll and Tom Fiedler to oversee the review. Their involvement will help assure objectivity as well as speed. Kathleen is the former executive editor of the AP and someone universally respected across the industry. Tom is the dean of the BU College of Communication, the former executive editor of the Miami Herald, and someone whose calling card has always been his integrity. In addition, Daniel Okrent, the former public editor of the New York Times, has agreed to read their report and weigh in as necessary.

The review will consist of two-prongs. First, Kathleen and Tom will focus on marathon-related issues. Separately, we’re undertaking a broader review of Kevin’s work, initially in-house, but we’ll bring in outside help if needed. The first part I’m hoping will be completed within a couple of weeks.

You may see Kathleen and Tom around the newsroom. If they seek your help, please give it to them.

This work, unpleasant as it is, is important to our institutional credibility. I’ll be back to you again when I have more to report.

The investigation was prompted by Cullen’s April 14 column marking the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. The column has several problems. First, a reader would almost certainly think Cullen was claiming that he was at the finish line in 2013, even though he has said on other occasions that he was about a mile away. As I’ve said several times, the language strikes me as deliberately ambiguous, as though Cullen wanted to create that misimpression, even though he doesn’t come right out and say it. Second, there are apparent reporting errors as well, particularly regarding the actions and identities of the firefighters he mentions.

All of this has been fodder for two weeks on the “Kirk and Callahan” show on WEEI Radio (93.7 FM), which was the first to pick up on the discrepancies. The full details can be found in this blog post by Minihane, which combines fact, speculation (“It may be all true, though I seriously doubt it,” he wrote of a different Cullen column), and vitriol. But give Minihane his due. There are real problems with Cullen’s column, and we wouldn’t be here if not for WEEI. Cullen has been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

We talked about the Cullen situation on “Beat the Press” last Friday, April 20, and again on April 27 (clip above). Last week my colleague Emily Rooney added her own analysis, reporting that WEEI deceptively edited a Cullen interview that appeared in an HBO documentary. In the more recent clip, we all agreed that the Globe should be more transparent in letting the public know what’s going on beyond this editor’s note, which was published a week ago online and in print.

Also last week, Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reported on the investigation and spoke with Marcus Breen of Boston College and me. Make of it what you will, but I was struck that Bill Richard, father of the late Martin Richard, whose family is mentioned in Cullen’s column, declined through a spokeswoman to comment.

And that, for the moment, is where things stand. As for myself, I’m a longtime admirer of Cullen’s work. Though I don’t know him personally, we’ve exchanged a few friendly greetings over the years. We should all be willing to wait and see if the investigation finds that the April 14 column represents a momentary lapse — or is an example of something more pervasive.

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Trump’s revenge: How tariffs on Canadian paper are killing journalism

Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It is the height of irony. President Trump, who detests the news media so much that he labeled them “the enemy of the American people,” has proved to be better for the journalism business than free scratch tickets tucked inside the “A” section. Thanks to the so-called Trump effect, newspapers and magazines have reported digital-subscription gains, cable news audiences have grown, and nonprofits such as NPR and ProPublica have gotten a boost.

But now Trump is getting his revenge. The U.S. Department of Commerce imposed tariffs on Canadian newsprint, as the grade of paper used in newspaper publishing is known, earlier this year, according to CNN.com. The tariffs have resulted in a 30 percent rise in the price of newsprint, which is the last thing the struggling business needs.

How bad is it? According to Tampa Bay Times chairman and chief executive Paul Tash, the tariff could increase the amount of money his paper spends on newsprint by $3 million for the year. As a result, the Times is eliminating about 50 jobs.

“These tariffs will hurt our readers, because they create pressure to raise our prices, and they will force publishers to re-examine every other expense,” Tash wrote, adding: “These tariffs will also hurt our employees, because payroll is the only expense that is bigger than newsprint.”

And in case you’re wondering, the Tampa Bay Times is not one of those corporate chain dailies controlled by a hedge fund. Rather, the Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization, and is one of our more highly regarded papers. Tash would not be cutting unless there were no alternative.

At one time the price of newsprint was a regularly recurring lament in the newspaper business. From the 1970s until about 2000, as papers expanded their coverage and classified-ad sections grew fat, the cost of paper exerted a drag on what otherwise would have been even higher profits. Newspaper owners responded by shrinking the size of their pages. The modern broadsheet is not very broad. I recently got a copy of the Mashpee Enterprise, one of a small group of old-fashioned community weeklies on Cape Cod. The width was enormous — nearly 14 inches — and it reminded me of what newspapers looked like when I was growing up. By contrast, The Boston Globe is 12 inches across, typical for the industry these days but tiny by historical standards.

Then, too, the price of newsprint wasn’t supposed to matter by 2018. Surely papers would have gone all-digital by now. As we know, it hasn’t happened. Although papers like the Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others have bet the future on digital subscriptions, they remain tied at the present to the revenues generated by their print editions. Print advertising, though plummeting, has maintained its value better than digital advertising, and it exists outside the death grip of Facebook and Google. Print subscribers still outnumber digital subscribers, too, and they pay a lot more — although obviously the cost of printing and distribution is higher too.

All of which created a situation that left the newspaper business vulnerable to the latest depredations of the Trump administration. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the current situation originated with a complaint filed with the Commerce Department by the North Pacific Paper Company, known as Norpac, which is based in Washington State. Norpac claimed that Canadian newsprint manufacturers have an unfair advantage over their American counterparts. But though Norpac argued that the Canadians paper mills should be punished because they receive government subsidies, other American newsprint manufacturers disagree — and argue that Norpac is seeking short-term profits for the benefit of its (you guessed it) hedge-fund owner. The details were reported by Bloombergin late December.

Norpac’s single plant employs about 300 people, the CNN report says. Meanwhile, the News Media Alliance, which represents some 2,000 newspapers in North America, says that some 600,000 American workers are dependent on Canadian paper for their jobs at newspapers and in commercial printing. Norpac, according to an op-ed piece written by David Chavern, president and CEO of the alliance, “is not acting in the best interests of newsprint consumers or the U.S. paper industry at large — it is acting in its own interest and no one else’s.”

The alliance is hoping to persuade the Trump administration to reverse the tariff on Canadian newsprint. We’ll see what happens. On the one hand, the president has been flexible to the point of chaotic with his on-again, off-again approach to which tariffs he wants to impose and which countries he wants to punish. On the other hand, he may see the newsprint tariff as a two-fer: Not only does he get to make life more difficult for the newspapers he so loathes, but the move benefits his fellow wealthy plutocrats as well.

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Pulitzer round-up: Race, #MeToo and the ever-present Trump story

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes are likely to be remembered as the Year of #MeToo, as courageous reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other predatory men sparked what may prove to be an enduring change in relations between the sexes. But the awards, announced Monday at Columbia University, covered a wide of subjects. And perhaps none of those is more difficult than race.

For The Boston Globe, the Pulitzers brought a near-win as well as a haunting voice from the past. The paper’s Spotlight Team was a runner-up in the Local Reporting category for its series on the city’s racial tensions, a painful part of our cultural DNA. And Patricia Smith, a lyrical African-American writer who left the Globe in 1998 after she was discovered to have fabricated characters and situations in her column, was herself a finalist in Poetry.

The Globe’s series, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” was a massive effort that explored the city’s troubled racial past and present from a variety of angles, including the nearly all-white Seaport District, our newest neighborhood; racial disparities in health care; and how African-Americans fare in higher education and in sports.

For those of us who urge news organizations to reconceptualize journalism as a form of civic engagement, the series was a landmark, sparking deep online discussion and forums at which members of the Spotlight Team met with members of the public. The Pulitzer judges called it “a poignant and illuminating exploration of the city’s fraught history of race relations.” I thought it might win a Pulitzer, perhaps in the Explanatory Reporting category. And though it fell short, it should nevertheless lead to conversation and follow-up stories for some time to come.

Patricia Smith, for those of you who weren’t around during the Globe’s Summer from Hell in 1998, was one of two star columnists who left in the midst of ethical lapses — Smith and Mike Barnicle for writing fiction, and Barnicle for plagiarism as well. Barnicle has remained an outspoken presence during the intervening 20 years, in recent years as a talking head on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Smith, though, largely disappeared from public view.

To her credit, Smith did the hard work of rebuilding her career. In 2015, The New York Times published a profile of Smith, by then a prize-winning poet as well as a professor at the College of Staten Island. Her selection as a 2018 Pulitzer finalist is for her collection “Incendiary Art,” described by the Pulitzer judges as a “searing portrait of the violence exacted against the bodies of African-American men in America and the grief of the women who mourn them.”

Although perhaps less well-known to those of us whose main interest in the Pulitzers is journalism, the most striking prize of all may have been the one awarded to the rapper Kendrick Lamar, who won in the Music category for his album “DAMN.” According to NPR.org, “It’s the first time in the prize’s history that it has been given to an artist outside of the classical or jazz community.” The Pulitzer judges called the album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

It is often said that the story of race is the story of America. At a time when our culture is becoming increasingly diverse, and when nearly half of our fellow Americans have made it clear that they fear that diversity, it’s heartening that the 2018 Pulitzers do so much to highlight it.

And congratulations to the Globe and to Patricia Smith.

The media and #MeToo

When considering the charged politics of gender in the workplace, it seems like the world began anew after the Times and The New Yorker exposed the violence-tinged depravity of the former entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The list of once-powerful men who’ve been laid low since the Weinstein revelations is a long one, and includes Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and others. Locally, Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) would probably still be at the “On Point” mic were it not for #MeToo, even though an investigation of his behavior found that he was a bully, not a sexual harasser.

The Globe has done good work in reporting the #MeToo story (such as columnist Yvonne Abraham’s exposure of former Massachusetts Senate president Stan Rosenberg’s husband, Byron Hefner) and has itself run afoul of rapidly changing workplace mores (consider editor Brian McGrory’s decision not to identify reporter Jim O’Sullivan after he left the paper — a decision McGrory later reversed).

The revelations have slowed down recently. It’s important that the momentum not be lost. By honoring Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the Times and Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker with the coveted Public Service Award, the Pulitzer judges have reminded us of how essential their work has been.

We live in a political world

I have made it to nearly the end of this column without mentioning President Trump. You’re welcome. Still, the overarching drama of our time is the chaotic Trump presidency, and the diligence with which that story is covered matters is of paramount importance to the fate of our democracy.

At a time when much of the news media is under siege because of its declining economic prospects, the Times and The Washington Post have both the resources and the competitive drive to try to get to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The papers have been excoriated by Trump himself as “failing” and “fake,” but the Pulitzer judges awarded them the National Reporting prize for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.” The Post also won the Investigative Reporting prize for a related story: its exposure of the Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as a probable child molester.

Every week, it seems, brings new evidence of confusion, falsehoods, and possible wrongdoing emanating from the Trump White House. The Times and the Post, fortunately, show no signs of backing down.

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Editor & Publisher says ‘Moguls’ explores the highs and lows of billionaire newspaper ownership

Longtime newspaper executive Matt DeRienzo has an insightful review of “The Return of the Moguls” in the trade publication Editor & Publisher. He begins:

Hoping a random billionaire buys your local newspaper and makes everything great again is probably not a solid plan for saving journalism in most of America. But examples of just that in Boston and Washington, D.C., are providing room for experimentation that could help the rest of the industry figure out new business models.

That’s partly the conclusion of a new book by Northeastern University journalism professor and Boston media critic Dan Kennedy. “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry are Remaking Newspapers for the 21st Century” explores turnarounds at the Washington Post and Boston Globe, failed attempts elsewhere, and the overall limits and pitfalls of the “billionaire savior” model.

Read the whole thing.

The Denver Post is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. Will DFM care?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was an unprecedented rebellion against the most notorious of the bottom-feeding newspaper chains. Over the weekend The Denver Post, gutted beyond recognition by Digital First Media, its hedge-fund-backed owner, published an editorial and a package of commentaries protesting endless rounds of cuts in the paper’s reporting staff. The editorial referred to the paper’s corporate overlords as “vulture capitalists” and said in part:

We call for action. Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden [Global Capital] — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely — at least not until Alden has squeezed every last penny out of the Post and the nationwide chain of newspapers it owns, ranging from The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register on the West Coast to, locally, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

As I’ve noted previously, Alden is controlled by an ultrawealthy financier named Randall Smith who, according to investigative reporting by Julie Reynolds in The Nation, plundered his newspapers in order to amass the $57 million he needed to purchase 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Digital First has also been accused of diverting hundreds of millions of dollars into investments managed by Alden, according to Reynolds.

The allegations against Digital First and Alden may be shocking, but they also underscore an important fact that casual observers often miss: there’s still plenty of money in newspapers, even though the business continues to shrink. Indeed, as the editorial in The Denver Post pointed out, Digital First was “solidly profitable” last year. Yet the Post’s newsroom has shrunk from more than 250 several years ago to fewer than 100 today — and will soon sink below 70.

Among those who contributed to the Post’s anti-Digital First package was Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe who worked as editor of the Post for 14 years, quitting two years ago rather than continuing to slash his reporting staff. “The Post cannot do its job starved of resources the way it is now,” Moore wrote. “Deep investigations can take months, running down news tips can take days, gathering and analyzing records can cost thousands of dollars, and getting the right photograph that tells a story better than words ever can takes patience. All of that is at stake with the relentless cutting taking place.”

Ironically (or perhaps not ironically), the Post on Friday published a preview of the baseball season in which it ran a six-column photo of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia instead Denver’s own Coors Field. Now, yes, it’s the sort of mistake that any 12-year-old baseball fan should have caught. But it’s also the sort of mistake that a demoralized, skeletal staff seemed almost destined to make. (The Post blamed it on a “production error.”)

So what can be done? Moore offered several suggestions: forming a public-private partnership, creating a foundation, or somehow persuading Digital First to spend a little more on journalism and a little less on Randall Smith’s mansions and speculative investments. The most promising of Moore’s ideas, though, is to find another buyer. If Smith and his hatchetman at Alden — Heath Freeman, likened to the fictional Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko in a recent Bloomberg View column by Joe Nocera — can be persuaded to sell now rather than wait for the last profits to trickle in, then perhaps journalism in Denver can be saved.

Just recently the Los Angeles Times, laid low by the corporate depredations of a chain known (seriously) as tronc, with a lowercase “t,” was purchased by a billionaire surgeon named Patrick Soon-Shiong. It’s too early to know what Soon-Shiong’s intentions are, but, if nothing else, he could give the Times a chance to grow again. Billionaire ownership has also benefited The Washington Post, which claims to be turning a profit under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and The Boston Globe, which is holding steady under financier and Red Sox principal owner John Henry.

Digital First’s initial reaction to the Denver uprising was more hands-off than one might have imagined. According to Sydney Ember of The New York Times, the company decided to let the commentary remain online and to go ahead with plans to include it in the Post’s print edition. The editorial-page editor, Chuck Plunkett, who conceived of the package, will remain on board.

But it remains to be seen whether what happened last weekend was the start of something big — or a futile gesture, quickly forgotten and not to be repeated as Digital First’s newspapers continue their long, not-so-slow slide to oblivion.

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Misdiagnosing what’s wrong with The New York Times

Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.

Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:

We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.

Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.

I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.

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Trump’s attacks on the ‘Fake Washington Post’ show how he’s different from Nixon

Illustration (cc) 2012 by AK Rockefeller.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little less than two years ago, as Donald Trump was moving ever closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos made a rather remarkable promise. “I have a lot of very sensitive and vulnerable body parts,” he said in a public conversation with the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron. “If need be, they can all go through the wringer rather than do the wrong thing.”

At the time, Trump was attacking the Post and Amazon, the retail behemoth that Bezos had founded, by threatening to launch an antitrust investigation and end Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks. So Bezos’ promise carried with it a very specific meaning, especially for those steeped in Watergate lore. When Post reporter Carl Bernstein asked one of Richard Nixon’s thugs, John Mitchell, to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell famously responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” And here was Bezos, all those years later, pledging to stand tall in the face of threats from the powerful — as tall as Katharine Graham had in the 1970s. It was a promise that is now being put to the test.

President Trump, of course, has attacked the “fake news” media relentlessly. Last week, he turned his attention, as he sometimes does, to the Post.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed that Bezos should be required to register the Post as a “lobbyist” for Amazon. He also referred to the paper as the “Fake Washington Post.” For those of us who are connoisseurs of such things, that’s a major improvement over his previous derogatory nickname, the “Amazon Washington Post,” though still not quite a match for the truly inspired “Failing New York Times.”

Of course, it’s easy to mock Trump. But his attacks on the Post go beyond buffoonery — they potentially represent real trouble. Imagine what would happen if the Trump administration launched an investigation into Amazon with the intent of harming the Post. The supine Republican Congress wouldn’t do anything but vaguely express concern. The Fox News-led right-wing media would bray for the Post’s demise.

And yet Trump isn’t Nixon. I don’t mean Trump isn’t as bad as Nixon; give him time, and he could prove to be worse. I mean that, stylistically, they are very different people with diametrically opposite ways of looking at the world. Nixon, for all his faults, fundamentally understood the legitimacy of the institutions he was seeking to undermine. He acted in secret, and the actions he considered taking against the Post — hitting the paper with a criminal complaint in order to undermine its public stock offering, challenging the licenses of the TV stations it held — would have hurt the Post in real, measurable ways.

By contrast, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Trump’s threats, based as they are on falsehoods so blatant that they can only be called lies. Amazon is not costing the post office money; it’s actually a boon. The Post is not a lobbyist for Amazon; Bezos has allowed the paper to operate independently, keeping his distance from both the news operation and the editorial pages. Trump is right about Amazon’s harming brick-and-mortar retailers, but it has paid state and local taxes just like any other company for some years now.

Also in contrast to Nixon’s skullduggery, Trump voices his threats in public. And that’s the key to what is really going on. Trump understands that in the current media environment, he doesn’t have to harm the business prospects of his enemies in the press (although Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair, reports that he might try to go after the Post). He merely has to delegitimize them in the eyes of the 35 to 40 percent of the public that continues to support him. The Post, the Times, and other news organizations are benefiting from the “Trump effect,” as anti-Trump audiences are rewarding them not just with clicks but with paid subscriptions. Trump doesn’t care as long as he is able to convince his followers that he and his sycophants at Fox News and Breibart are the source of all the reality that they need.

In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, at a time when it looked like Trump was going to lose, Bezos spoke out against Trump for suggesting he wouldn’t respect the results of the election unless he won. “One of the things that makes this country so amazing is that we are allowed to criticize and scrutinize our elected leaders,” Bezos said. “There are other countries where if you criticize the elected leader you might go to jail. Or worse, you may just disappear.”

In fact, Trump is making his enemies in the media disappear — not to all of us, and certainly not to the majority who are appalled by his presidency. But he is making the mainstream media disappear to his followers and replacing them with himself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. The Fake Washington Post and the Failing New York Times aren’t going anywhere. For the Trump minority, though, they have ceased to exist.

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How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed

Photo (cc) 2010 by Dan Kennedy

With the bankrupt corporate chain iHeartMedia now in the process of dismantling WBZ Radio (AM 1030), the city’s only commercial news station, I thought I would repost a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in 1997 — a look at the state of radio in Boston one year after passage of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1997.

Sound and Fury

Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here’s how it happened — and how to make it better.

The Boston Phoenix
November 13, 1997

It’s cold in Rick Anderson’s office, on the third floor of a red-brick building just outside Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Not see-your-breath, rub-your-hands cold, but cold enough for Anderson to have topped off his casual attire with a heavy flannel shirt. Cold enough for a visitor to keep his sports coat on.

Anderson, 41, is the program director of WILD Radio (AM 1090), where he has worked off and on since 1984. A trim man of medium height, with a shaved head, close-cropped mustache, and goatee, Anderson speaks in the smooth, confident tones of an experienced radio announcer. In fact, in addition to his management duties, Anderson works the afternoon drive time shift, playing new hits by black artists such as SFTP (“My Love Is the Shhh”) and Bobby Brown (“Feelin Inside”).

Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format of what he calls “straight urban music” last year, the station’s ratings have ticked up. And though the station is hardly a threat to ratings monster WJMN (94.5 FM), a/k/a JAM’N, whose music formula occupies the same niche, Anderson insists that WILD has more credibility in the black community.

“It’s all good music,” he says. “It’s just that at one end it’s done by black people, at the other end it’s done by white people. We really know the music. They do a lot of — research.” Obviously pleased with the comparison, he leans back in his chair and smiles.

But there’s another, even more crucial difference between WILD and WJMN. At a time when radio has come to be dominated by megacorporations that gobble up multiple stations in a given market, WILD is one of the last of the independents.

On February 8, 1996, a furious, multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by corporate interests paid off big time, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Though most of the focus was on the deregulation of the telephone, cable, and television industries, the law also contained a sweet plum for the radio industry — or, rather, for the industry’s wealthiest players. Ownership restrictions in a given market were loosened from four stations to as many as eight. National restrictions, formerly set at 40 stations, were eliminated altogether.

Not surprisingly, this green light set off a feeding frenzy. More than 4000 of the nation’s 10,000 or so commercial radio stations have changed hands since the bill’s passage. The combined price tag: a whopping $25 billion, or slightly more than this year’s federal budget deficit.

The consolidation of Boston’s stations came mainly in two big gulps. The first took place in June 1996, when Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of CBS Radio, purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $3.9 billion, creating a nationwide chain of 82 stations. The second came this past September, when Westinghouse bought out American Radio Systems for $2.6 billion. After the merger is complete, Westinghouse will be the nation’s radio powerhouse. Chancellor Media will have more stations, but Westinghouse/CBS will have more listeners at any given moment. (See “Monopoly Pieces” for an explanation of how listenership is measured.)

As a result, Westinghouse/Infinity and ARS control 10 Boston stations, accounting for some 70 percent of the radio advertising market. Under US Department of Justice antitrust guidelines, Westinghouse will have to sell or trade stations to get that figure down to 40 percent before the sale wins final approval, probably in early 1998. That will still make Westinghouse the big bully on the block. And that bully has the potential to flex its muscle more in the years to come because once it scales back to 40 percent, there is no cap on future ad-sales growth. Continue reading “How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed”