When local news was king, Tom Ellis was Elvis

Tom Ellis (via NECN)

It’s hard to explain to anyone under 50 what a big deal local TV news was in Boston (and everywhere) back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Everyone watched. And Tom Ellis was Elvis. He’ll be missed.

His former colleague Emily Rooney recalls a time when Ellis was handed a cup of coffee with a cockroach in it and decided to swallow the cockroach rather than embarrass the woman who gave it to him. I am not making that up.

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A downbeat media roundup: Buffett disappoints, startups falter and publications die

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Has there been a more disappointing newspaper owner than Warren Buffett? When Buffett bought 63 papers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, it looked like the billionaire investor might play a significant role in reinventing local journalism. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News.

And Buffett liked newspapers — so much so that he even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: In 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and assisting with the writing, according to a 2014 account in The Wall Street Journal. He was also a trusted adviser to the Graham family back when they controlled The Washington Post and he was a shareholder. “By the spring of 1974,” Katharine Graham wrote in her memoir, “Personal Story,” “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”

Yet Buffett has been talking down the newspaper business for years — and last week he was at it again. “They’re going to disappear,” he told Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer, citing the ongoing decline of advertising. He did allow that three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, might survive. But everyone else was “toast.”

Certainly they’re going to be toast with owners like Buffett. As I wrote in my book “The Return of the Moguls,” Buffett has allowed his managers to cut hundreds of jobs from his newspapers in recent years, even as his fellow multibillionaire Jeff Bezos has overseen growth and profits at the Post.

Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his 80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But Buffett was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

Buffett is by no means the worst owner a newspaper could have — not with hedge funds and corporate chains slashing and burning their way through the mediascape. But anyone who hoped he would establish himself as an innovative force in recalibrating the economics of journalism has to be disappointed.

Two high-profile startups misfire

The meltdown of two high-profile digital startups raises questions about not just what went wrong, but whether there were any warning signs we should have paid more attention to.

The more disheartening of the two is The Correspondent, a Dutch website that recently concluded a successful fundraising campaign to launch what we all thought was going to be a U.S. edition. The project, funded through a membership model, is free of advertising and is based on the idea of journalists and readers engaging in an ongoing conversation. Among the early enthusiasts was Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. And me: I wrote about the project two years ago, made a donation to the site last fall, and urged others to do the same.

Recently, though, we learned that there wasn’t going to be a separate U.S. edition after all. Instead, there would be an English-language edition, based in Amsterdam, and the New York office would be closed now that the fundraising campaign had concluded. The founders took to Twitter to explain that we had misunderstood them. Had we somehow gotten it wrong?

No, according to Zainab Shah, a former BuzzFeed journalist who was The Correspondent’s first U.S. hire. In a devastating piece last Friday by Laura Hazard Owen at Nieman Lab, Shah said she took the job after being told she would head up what would in fact be a U.S. edition headquartered in New York, and that she recently quit after the founders made clear that it wasn’t going to happen.

“They’re really good at the PR thing, and it really feels like gaslighting,” Shah said. “They were like, ‘Well, we never promised a U.S. newsroom.’ I was like: Wait, did I just imagine all this?”

I should note that the founders continue to defend themselves and that Shah’s experience is just one data point. Still, this is bad news for those of us who hoped that The Correspondent represented a new way of doing journalism — “optimized for trust,” to use Rosen’s phrase.

Also running off the rails last week was The Markup, intended as a source of data-driven journalism about the largest technology companies. Months before its scheduled launch, co-founder and editor-in-chief Julia Angwin, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, was fired by chief executive Sue Gardner, whom Angwin had helped recruit, and replaced by another co-founder, Jeff Larson. Five of the seven editorial employees quit in support of Angwin, and Craig Newmark, the Craigslist billionaire who provided much of the funding, is said to be involved in getting the project back on track.

What exactly went wrong is too convoluted to get into here. For that, I recommend Mathew Ingram’s detailed overview at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Although I salute Angwin if it proves true that her sins included refusing to take a Myers-Briggs personality test.)

The larger issue with both The Correspondent and The Markup is whether there are any lessons in these two very different situations. I wish I could say there was — but at least in the case of The Correspondent we could see trouble brewing from some distance. Last fall, for instance, the site was involved in a nasty public dispute with Sarah Kendzior, a contributor to the Dutch-language site. The facts remain murky, though it was clear that something was amiss.

And then, as I’ve noted, The Correspondent’s founders not only reneged on their promise to launch a U.S. edition in the United States, but they claimed they had never said any such thing. That was gently disputed by none other than Rosen himself at his blog, Press Think, back in March.

“Through 2017 and much of 2018 we shared a default assumption that The Correspondent would be based in New York,” he wrote. “I call it a ‘default’ because we never sat down to decide it, and there was no real cost study or strategic analysis behind it. Rather, we had opened a campaign office in New York (with borrowed office space) and it seemed like that would evolve into The Correspondent’s newsroom.”

My only takeaway is that startups can be problematic. I’ll be watching The Correspondent closely and hoping its English-language edition proves to be worthwhile — although it will be a long time before I make another donation.

As for The Markup, I can only trust that Newmark, having already stepped in, will do the right thing. I assume that means bringing back Angwin in some top role, even if Gardner is not completely wrong about her alleged shortcomings as a manager.

The end of the road

New England lost two venerable publications in recent weeks.

Last week The Improper Bostonian, a free glossy magazine covering lifestyles, entertainment, and the arts, announced that its current issue would be its last after 28 years. “It was ultimately a family decision, that was really the bottom line,” owner and publisher Wendy Semonian Eppich told Folio, which covers the magazine business. “It was heavily based on finances, but it goes bigger than finances and that is critical and that is the truth.”

Several weeks earlier The Portland Phoenix, the last of the Phoenix newspapers, was shut down by its current owner, according to the Bangor Daily News. The Phoenix traces its roots to the Boston After Dark, founded by the late Stephen Mindich in 1966. At one time the papers included editions in Boston, Providence, Worcester, and Portland. I was on staff at The Boston Phoenix for many years, and I wrote the cover story for the Portland paper’s debut in 1999 — a profile of Maine’s then-senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderate Republican women.

The fortunes of free publications with free websites have diminished to the vanishing point as advertising revenues continue to crater. We’re lucky that we still have DigBoston, a for-profit alternative weekly allied with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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The Improper signs off

No, we can’t have nice things. Earlier today The Improper Bostonian announced it was shutting down after 28 years of publication. Given that it was a free glossy magazine in an age of declining ad revenues, it’s a miracle that it lasted as long as it did.

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Warren Buffett still thinks newspapers are doomed

Warren Buffett in a 2010 White House photo

The self-made billionaire Warren Buffett has been a disappointment ever since he started buying newspapers. According to Bloomberg News, he believes that all except a few national papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are doomed — echoing remarks he’s been making for several years. Here’s what I wrote about Buffett in “The Return of the Moguls”:

For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of [Jeff] Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-eighties to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and [John] Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

Buffett isn’t the worst newspaper owner out there by any means. But as someone who has taken a great interest in newspapers over the years (among other things, he was a close adviser to former Post publisher Katharine Graham), it seems to me that he could have done more.

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Why Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media was met mainly with applause

Roman Catholic church in Sri Lanka. Photo (cc) 2010 by Ronald Saunders.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Eight years ago, Western observers were appalled when then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cut off internet access in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings. Back then, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media were seen as tools of liberation, empowering ordinary citizens to stand up against the forces of repression.

Alec Ross, a top aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, went so far as to call the internet “the Che Guevara of the 21st century,” enthusing: “Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part — but not entirely — because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.”

What a long, ugly trip it has been since those hopeful days. How bad has it gotten? When the Sri Lankan government shut down Facebook and other social platforms following Sunday’s deadly terrorist attacks on churches and hotels, many people applauded, citing social media’s seemingly unlimited potential to spread dangerous rumors and incite more violence. Leading the charge was Kara Swisher, a longtime technology journalist who now writes a column for The New York Times.

“It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off,” Swisher wrote. “But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.”

Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, a project founded at Harvard Law School for the express purpose of giving a voice to citizen journalists across the world, took to Twitter to praise Sri Lanka’s action, as noted by CNN. “A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat,” said Sigal. “#facebook your house is not in order.”

Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot since those heady days when we believed that social media would bring people together, leading to a utopian world community overflowing with peace, love, and understanding. The dark side has become ever more prevalent in recent years as Facebook and its ilk have fostered the rise of right-wing populism from the Philippines to Hungary, from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Sometimes it’s because bad actors have manipulated the platforms, as the Russians did during the 2016 U.S. election — or, more tragically, as the military in Myanmar did in whipping up genocidal violence against that country’s Muslim minority. Sometimes it’s because the platforms work exactly the way they’re supposed to. Facebook, with its 2.3 billion active monthly users, relies on algorithms that keep those users online and engaged — and the most effective way to do that is to serve up content that appeals to their sense of outrage and grievance.

In his book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is naive and idealistic rather than deliberately destructive — but that makes him no less nefarious an actor. “Mark Zuckerberg is profoundly uneducated,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion. But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

As BuzzFeed News noted, not everyone applauded the Sri Lankan government’s social shutdown. Some pointed out that Facebook and other platforms are among the few means that ordinary people have to stay in touch with their friends and family members and to check on their safety. Others said that the privileged (not to mention the terrorists themselves) would not be affected, as they could simply use a VPN — that is, a virtual private network — to get around the censorship decree.

“Curbing civil liberties and civil rights doesn’t make people more safe,” Allie Funk of the nonprofit organization Freedom House told Wired. “These are societal issues that are going to take long-term solutions.”

Facebook itself said in a statement: “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and to helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”

CNN’s daily media newsletter asked: “Have we really reached a moment where a government being able to shut down the world’s most important social media platforms is better than having the platforms up and running after a terrorist attack, misinformation and all?”

It would appear that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it is better. Simply put, social media, and especially Facebook, have not just failed to live up to their promise — they’ve been a detriment across the world, undermining democracy, stirring up hatred, and costing lives.

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No reason for BuzzFeed to apologize for that explosive Michael Cohen story

I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.

At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:

While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:

On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.

Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.

BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].

My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.

Earlier: “Making Sense of the BuzzFeed Bombshell — and What, If Anything, Went Wrong” (WGBH News, Jan. 23).

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The Globe gets ready to sail its Arc into Rhode Island

Big changes are coming for Boston Globe digital subscribers, not to mention staff members. Over the next few weeks, visitors to BostonGlobe.com will be driven to Arc, the paper’s new content-management system, according to an email to the staff from senior product manager Eric Westby. The email was passed along by a trusted source who asked to remain anonymous.

The Globe is licensing Arc from The Washington Post, where the CMS was developed.  As a Globe subscriber, I’m hoping for a consistent user experience across all platforms, web, tablet and phone, as is the case with washingtonpost.com and its “classic” (black) apps. The Globe unveiled an Arc-based mobile app last fall, but it remains underdeveloped. Among other things, you still can’t swipe horizontally through articles on the iOS version. (I’m told that you can if you’re an Android user.)

The final steps toward adopting Arc come at the same time that the Globe is making a digital push into Rhode Island, hiring three veteran reporters (so far) at a time when The Providence Journal is being decimated by GateHouse Media, its corporate chain owner. Improved digital platforms should help with that push — but only if the Globe really commits to getting Arc right.

The full text of Westby’s email follows.

Dear Colleagues,

A quick update on the upcoming Arc CMS launch. We’re happy to report that our Arc beta test has been a success, and we’ll be ending the test and moving BostonGlobe.com visitors to an Arc-driven site beginning April 22. Our plan is to transition the bulk of our traffic from Méthode to Arc gradually over the course of that week. Visitors will be randomly assigned to the Arc group in stages, with all traffic driven to Arc by Friday, April 26. Two things to note:

    • The plan is for the redesigned Globe.com homepage and the sports section front to follow one week later, in order to mitigate any potential workflow or technical issues at launch. Our current plan is to move these two critical pages from Méthode to Arc on or about May 1.
    • With this launch, we will have effectively moved BostonGlobe.com to a sleeker, more modern, and more flexible design, one that’s built for our future and run with the best system in its class. You’ll still notice an odd page here and there in the old site layout: Today’s Paper, Crosswords, Author pages, etc. We will be transitioning these pages one at a time in the weeks ahead, both to account for variables with the coding and to ensure our readers don’t lose any functionality during this important transition.

Articles will continue to be written and edited in Méthode for now, with the move to Ellipsis (Arc’s article authoring tool) soon to follow. This rollout will be a phased approach that will require training and careful planning. You’ll be receiving more information on the Ellipsis rollout soon.

There will no doubt be bugs to squash, but this launch will mark a major milestone in our Arc rollout.

All the best,

Eric Westby
Senior Product Manager, BostonGlobe.com

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Pulitzer notes: Why does Murdoch allow his Wall Street Journal to torment Trump?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

During the past two months, major investigative articles in The New YorkerThe New York Times Magazine, and The Intercept have been published about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and how it has fused with right-wing populist governments on three continents — including President Trump’s administration in the United States — in order to enhance his family’s power and wealth.

So it’s no small irony that, on Monday, the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded to Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal for exposing the hush money that Trump paid to Stephanie Clifford (better known as Stormy Daniels) and Karen McDougal. As the Pulitzer announcement put it, the award was “for uncovering President Trump’s secret payoffs to two women during his campaign who claimed to have had affairs with him, and the web of supporters who facilitated the transactions, triggering criminal inquiries and calls for impeachment.”

At least to this point, the Journal’s reporting has created more of a legal minefield for the president than has special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — although that may change when the redacted version of the Mueller report is released later this week. Thus it’s worth pondering why Murdoch, who has transformed the Fox News Channel into a full-throated propaganda vehicle for Trump and his hateful utterances, has nevertheless maintained the Journal’s excellence during his decade-plus of ownership.

My guesses: The Journal gives Murdoch a cachet he otherwise wouldn’t have; and he knows that a high-brow newspaper has nowhere near the power to mold public opinion as does a top-rated cable network whose hosts endorse and amplify Trump’s fact-free rhetoric. The Journal’s reporting may create problems for Trump — but nothing that can’t be drowned out by the likes of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

One other Trump-related note: The New York Times won the Explanatory Reporting award for its massive investigation into Trump’s false claims that he became wealthy as a result of his own efforts as well for reporting about his family’s reliance on a wide variety of tax-avoidance schemes.

***

Trump and Murdoch aside, you couldn’t look over the list of Pulitzer winners without feeling profound sadness. There was the Special Citation for the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, whose journalists kept reporting after five of its employees were killed by a gunman last June. There was the Breaking News Reporting Award that went to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in October.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel won the most prestigious of the Pulitzers, for Public Service, “for exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.” The Washington Post was a finalist in that same category for its reporting on the killing of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently at the hands of the Saudi regime.

As Andrew McCormick of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy also took note in her remarks of obituaries published by The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness, even in the most wrenching of circumstances,” Canedy said. And as McCormick observed, “It was, unfortunately, the theme of Canedy’s remarks and of the 103rd iteration of the prizes this year: the rising tide of violence in the country, which journalists have had to cover and of which they have become targets themselves.”

***

A few other Pulitzer notes:

• Boston Globe photographer Craig Walker, a two-time Pulitzer winner, was a finalist in Feature Photography for his work documenting the life of Connor Biscan, the subject of “Raising Connor,” a boy struggling with autism and other issues. The photos and accompanying story, by Liz Kowalczyk, were published in the Globe last May.

• The late Aretha Franklin was awarded a Special Citation “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.” The prize was more than well-deserved, but it’s a shame that the Pulitzer board decided to wait until Franklin was no longer around to enjoy it. Quite simply, she was one of the greatest musicians of the past 75 years.

• I had already planned, with some trepidation, to take on David W. Blight’s monumental (912 pages) “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” So I was pleased to see that it won the Pulitzer for History.

• The full list of Pulitzers is deep and impressive, and I have left out more than I’ve included. Please take a look at the best in journalism and the arts in 2018.

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About that pissy column in (and out of) The Boston Globe

In case you missed it, “Beat the Press” last Friday took on The Boston Globe’s twice-edited, thrice-published, once-deleted column by freelancer Luke O’Neil in which he initially wrote, “One of the biggest regrets in my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon.” Also, interim editorial-page editor Shirley Leung spoke with “Boston Public Radio” and O’Neil gave an interview to WGBH News.

To me, the puzzle is how this ever got published in the first place. If that obvious lapse could have been avoided, not only would the Globe have spared itself quite a bit of embarrassment, but O’Neil wouldn’t have been hung out to dry on social media. O’Neil doesn’t exactly seem contrite, so maybe he thinks this has all been good for the brand.

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Julian Assange, freedom of the press, and the meaning of journalism

Julian Assange. Photo (cc) 2011 by The Naked Ape.

The arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London raises the possibility — make that the likelihood — that he will be prosecuted in the United States for revealing military secrets provided to him by former Army private Chelsea Manning. What does this mean for freedom of the press?

As I argued in The Guardian in 2010, when it appeared that the Obama administration was prepared to bring charges against Assange, there was no practical or ethical way of drawing a distinction between WikiLeaks and mainstream news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian, all of which have published military secrets that were leaked to them, most famously the Pentagon Papers.

The principle that U.S. officials have generally followed is that leakers such as Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, Reality Winner and, if he is arrested, Edward Snowden may be prosecuted, but journalists are left alone — even though they could at least theoretically be charged under the World War I-era Espionage Act. The government has tried to argue that WikiLeaks colluded with Manning in his theft of documents, although even then it’s hard to see how that goes beyond normal journalist-source conversations.

Of course, a lot has happened since 2010. The First Amendment would almost certainly not protect Assange if he is charged with being an agent of the Russian government in connection with the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016. But based on what we knew as of 2010, I think this column holds up rather well.

WikiLeaks and the First Amendment

An Obama administration prosecution of Julian Assange over the embassy cable leaks would be an assault on press freedom

By Dan Kennedy | The Guardian | Dec. 16, 2010

President Obama has decided to pursue a dangerous strategy that could cause irreparable harm to freedom of the press as we know it. According to Charlie Savage of The New York Times, Attorney General Eric Holder is investigating the possibility of prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in connection with the 250,000 diplomatic cables stolen — according to the government — by army private Bradley Manning.

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