Once again, Digital First swings the ax at the Boston Herald

Digital First Media’s latest round of cuts at the Boston Herald was the talk of local media Twitter on Thursday. The most shocking was that photographer Mark Garfinkel, perhaps the paper’s best journalist, was among those told that his services were no longer needed.

Disclosure: Mark is a friend who has spoken to my students on several occasions. He worked as a stringer at the former Beverly Times (long since merged with The Salem News) near the start of his career — and the photo editor at that time was none other than Mrs. Media Nation.

Both Jack Sullivan at CommonWealth Magazine and Jon Chesto of The Boston Globe have weighed in on the cuts. Sullivan puts the body count at about 20; Chesto says 14. Chesto also reports that the Herald now employs about a total of 100 people, less than half the 240 who worked there before former owner Pat Purcell declared bankruptcy.

Some of the cuts don’t necessarily diminish the Herald’s journalism. The copy editing jobs, for instance, are being outsourced to a Digital First facility in Denver. (Not that we should expect distant copy editors to do as good a job as local people who know the area.) Overall, though, this is terrible news. Garfinkel was one of two photographers let go on Thursday. How can you have a viable tabloid without great photography?

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Speaking with Latin American journalists about ‘Moguls’

I had a great time today speaking at Northeastern with Latin American journalists about “The Return of the Moguls.” Their trip to the Boston area was sponsored by WorldBoston, which collaborates with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. A great group with lots of smart questions.

The Supreme Court confirmation process is broken. Here’s how to fix it.

Robert Bork. 2005 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I proposed to fix our state elections by adopting ranked voter choice, moving the primaries to June, and making them nonpartisan. (You’re welcome.) Today I’m back with the exponentially more difficult task of repairing our broken Supreme Court confirmation process. My plan, I think, is simple and logical. But I’d be the first to concede that it has virtually no chance of happening.

Read the rest at WGBH News. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech

Alex Jones with fans. Photo (cc) 2006 by Nick Mollberg.

Alex Jones is the sort of dangerous crank that freedom of speech was designed to protect. When the late Anthony Lewis wrote his “biography” of the First Amendment, he titled it “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” We don’t need constitutional protections to report on the church picnic. We need them to make sure that the most loathsome among us are allowed to spread conspiracy theories, spout vile insults, and stage outrageous demonstrations of hatred and prejudice.

And no, Jones is not in danger of losing his First Amendment rights. The government has not attempted to silence him. His website, InfoWars, continues to be a popular stop for those on the extreme right. He is facing a lawsuit from several of the Sandy Hook families, whom he had cruelly accused of staging an elaborate hoax. But that, too, is part of the First Amendment.

The problem is that Jones illustrates perfectly a dilemma that some of us have been warning about for years: the privatization of free speech. As you may know, Jones in recent months has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. Last Friday he was cut off by PayPal as well. He’s going to need to find another way for his customers to pay him for those InfoWars Life Super Male Vitality supplements.

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Brett Kavanaugh has thrived in a culture that embraces sexual harassment

Judge Brett Kavanaugh (right) meets Sen. Chuck Grassley. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser now has a name and a harrowing story to tell. Over the next few days, we can expect an avalanche of news stories and cable talk about Christine Blasey Ford and whether her allegations are enough to topple the Kavanaugh nomination.

But there’s a broader context to all of this, and journalists would be negligent if they fail to explore it. Simply put, Kavanaugh has been in close proximity to, and in some cases has benefited from, a cultural of sexual harassment and assault his entire life.

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‘The Return of the Moguls’ comes to Everett

Following a summer hiatus, I’ll be doing some book events this fall. The first will be held this Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Parlin Memorial Library, located at 410 Broadway in Everett, where I’ll be reading from and signing “The Return of the Moguls.” I hope to see you there.

Beyond ‘Fear’: An ex-New York Times critic explains the cultural rot Trump exploits

We are in the midst of a book-inspired frenzy over Donald Trump’s the cruelty and mendacity. The legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s latest, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” has renewed our anguished questions over how this petulant, foul-mouthed racist could be elected president.

But though Woodward has described the what and the how of the Trump presidency, we must look elsewhere for the why. Trump did not spring out of nowhere; we had been slouching in his direction for a long time. As former president Barack Obama put it the other day: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.” But a symptom of what, exactly?

Attempting to give us some answers is Michiko Kakutani. Her new book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” provides some much-needed context to help us understand what happened to our democracy. The tools wielded by Kakutani, the former weekday book critic for The New York Times, are deep reading and cultural criticism. The result is not entirely satisfying. But she does offer some provocative observations the about social changes that made Trump not just possible, but inevitable.

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A few preliminary thoughts on The Boston Globe’s new Arc-powered app

Following a soft launch, The Boston Globe today is going public with its new app for tablets and phones, powered by Arc, The Washington Post’s content-management system. I’ve been playing with it since Tuesday, and I have a few very preliminary observations.

— It’s fast and attractive in a Post kind of way. The icon for the app is a white “B” on a black background, and the look and feel are similar to the Post’s black app. Stories load quickly, pictures are big and the type size can be easily adjusted.

— The organizational scheme is intuitive and makes sense. Across the top is a navigation bar that lets you choose from among Top Stories, Sports, Metro and the like. One of the choices is Marijuana, a hint of the paper’s expanded coverage of all things pot that is said to be in the works. Click on “Sections” at the bottom and you can drill down to more specific coverage. Again, this will be familiar to Post readers.

— Unlike virtually any news app I’ve ever used, you can’t swipe from one story to the next. Instead, you have to click the back arrow to return to whatever section you’re browsing. Stories load quickly enough that this amounts to a minor annoyance, not a major one. But it needs to be fixed.

— Stories appear in seemingly random order, even in the Top Stories section. As I scroll through the section right now, I see a few news stories followed by some sports, then back to news, then some more sports. The Top Stories sections of the best newspaper apps — those offered by the Post and The New York Times — are divided into sections and have a curated feel to them. The Globe needs to do better.

— As with the Post, there is no Today’s Paper listing of stories. That’s actually one of my favorite features of the Times’ app, since I might read a few stories on my way to work and then pick it up later during the day. A newspaper as a fixed record of the day’s most important events may seem old-school, but stories you might want to read tend to disappear from continuously updated apps. There’s a Today’s Paper listing at the Globe’s website, which works fine on a phone, even if it’s slow. I’d like to see that migrate to the app as well.

Based on first impressions, I’d give the Globe’s app a “B.” Given that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have bet the farm on selling pricey digital subscriptions (currently just shy of 100,000), the tech side ought to keep working and get it into the “A” range. There’s a lot to like, a few things that need to be improved and one shortcoming — the inability to swipe from story to story — that is just plain unacceptable.

Update: A Facebook commenter says that you can swipe with the Android version. I’m an iOS user. But that suggests the problem won’t be too difficult to fix.

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How June primaries, the instant runoff and nonpartisan elections could revive democracy in Mass.

WGBH News photo by Meredith Nierman.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Massachusetts primaries were a success — if by “success” you mean there was no obvious Russian interference, there were enough ballots for everyone, and none of candidates came to blows in the parking lot outside the local Elks hall.

But notwithstanding the excitement of Ayanna Pressley’s surprising win over longtime congressman Michael Capuano, you would have been hard-pressed to find an outbreak of civic engagement.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin had predicted that turnout would be around 15 percent — a pathetic figure that’s pretty much standard for primaries, and one more obstacle for challengers hoping to unseat better-known incumbents. Moreover, in the hotly contested Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, Daniel Koh was leading a 10-candidate field early this morning with less than 22 percent of the vote. In other words, more than 78 percent of voters wanted someone else to succeed U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who’s retiring.

Minuscule turnout and razor-thin victories by candidates who are supported by barely one-fifth of those who bothered to show up are deadly to the body politic. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a reform-minded spirit and a willingness to try something new, we could reinvent elections in Massachusetts. Here are three ideas that could restore competition as well turn nonvoters into voters. What are we waiting for?

Move the primaries to June

Galvin didn’t have to designate Sept. 4 as primary day. But he didn’t have any good choices. Given when the Jewish holidays fall this year, he couldn’t have scheduled the primaries for either of the following two Tuesdays. But who says the primaries have to be held in September?

If you’ve been paying attention to primary contests in other states, you know that voters have been casting ballots all summer. The stretch between the July 4 and Labor Day is traditionally a time when many people set politics aside and concentrate on more compelling matters, such as the beach. That’s why I’d move the primaries to sometime in mid- or late June. New York does it with federal offices; you may recall that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected victory in the primary for a congressional seat came on June 26. I would do the same in Massachusetts for both federal and state contests.

On the face of it, you might think a longer campaign is something to be avoided. Here’s why I think that’s wrong. A late-June primary would mean that candidates could run hard for two or three months in the spring, at a time when voters might be paying more attention. Televised debates would get bigger audiences. Challengers would be able to make their case in the high-attention months of April, May, and June rather than in the dog days of summer.

The switch would help general-election challengers as well. State Rep. Geoff Diehl, an obscure Republican, and former Patrick administration official Jay Gonzalez, a little-known Democrat, now have an eight-week sprint in which to make the case that they should defeat two popular incumbents — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker, respectively. The challengers should have had the summer to put their campaigns together rather than fending off challengers from their own parties.

The good news is that both Galvin and his Republican opponent, Anthony Amore, support moving the primaries to the spring, as did Galvin’s Democratic challenger, Josh Zakim. So does The Boston Globe’s editorial page. To many this is one reform idea whose time has come.

Adopt the instant runoff

I’ve been arguing for this since 2000, and there are reasons to believe it might finally happen. Maine has adopted it. Cambridge has been doing it in municipal elections for years. The Boston Globe has endorsed it. The goal is to get past our winner-take-all elections, in which whoever comes in first is handed the victory, even if he or she attracts far less than a majority.

The instant runoff, also known as ranked choice, gives voters an opportunity to indicate their order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and her supporters’ second-place votes are awarded to the remaining contenders. Candidates continue to be eliminated in this manner until someone has a majority. And if no candidate has a majority after the second-place votes are counted, the process is repeated with voters’ third choices, fourth choices, and so on. It’s like having a series of runoff elections, except that voters only have to go to the polls once.

The advantage of this is that the eventual winner might be someone who has more broad support among the electorate than the candidate who finishes first with less than a majority. As I’m writing this, Daniel Koh is just a little more than 600 votes ahead of Lori Trahan in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, with a margin of 21.7 percent to 20.9 percent. A recount looms. In a 10-candidate field, though, it’s impossible to know which of them would prove to be more popular with voters who backed another candidate. For that matter, the consensus choice might be someone else altogether. The instant runoff would provide the answer.

For more information about ranked-choice voting, visit the website of the the nonprofit organization Voter Choice Massachusetts.

Switch to nonpartisan primaries

I’ll admit that I’m not as enthusiastic about this idea as I am about June primaries and the instant runoff. But despite Republican Charlie Baker’s popularity, Democrats have long had a stranglehold on politics in Massachusetts. Democrats control every statewide office except the governorship — both U.S. Senate seats, all nine congressional seats, and overwhelming majorities in both branches of the state Legislature. Consider that Pressley, following her exciting win over Capuano, will not even face a Republican opponent in November. That’s not healthy for democracy.

Nonpartisan primaries would simply mean that the top two finishers would face each other in the general election. They might be two Democrats, a Democrat and a Republican, two independents, a Democrat and a Libertarian, or whatever. Among other things, such a system might lead to the emergence of more moderate Baker-style Republicans, as right-wing candidates would no longer be assured of a spot on the November ballot simply by virtue of winning the Republican primary.

Nonpartisan primaries have been adopted in California. They have also long been in effect in cities like Boston, where both the mayor and the city council are elected without regard for party affiliation.

I would not eliminate party labels. But nonpartisan primaries could lead to more competition — especially for entrenched Democratic incumbents who coast to their party’s nomination and then face token Republican opposition (if that) in November.

The fact that not just Pressley but also challengers to several longtime legislators were successful shows that democracy in Massachusetts still has a beating pulse. But we can do better. And these are not the only ideas to improve our elections. Weekend-long voting would make it easier for many people to get to the polls than the one-day Tuesday ritual. Dividing the state into, say, three congressional districts instead of nine, with each district electing three people, could give a boost to Republicans and minority parties.

After Tuesday’s low-turnout exercise in what is supposed to be participatory democracy, though, changing the way we hold primaries and moving past winner-take-all ought to be the first order of business.

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It’s 1974 all over again: For the Globe, Trump’s angry words have consequences

Entrance to the lobby of the Globe’s former plant in Dorchester. Photo (cc) 2012 by Dan Kennedy.

Early Monday morning, a gunman fired one shot through the plate glass window of the plant’s lobby facing Morrissey boulevard, narrowly missing a security guard, and three more shots through the plate glass windows of the press room. No one was injured.

— The Boston Globe, Oct. 8, 1974

Angry words have consequences. Nearly 44 years ago, The Boston Globe came under attack because of white racism, fueled by anti-integration activists who were furious at the Globe’s sympathetic coverage of and editorial support for court-ordered desegregation.

In addition to the shots that were fired at the Globe on two separate occasions (possibly by the notorious killer James “Whitey” Bulger), the Globe was beset by a violent demonstration in front of the plant as well as vandalism. At one point, gun-wielding youths forced a driver out of a Globe delivery truck, whereupon they pushed it into Fort Point Channel. All of this is described in J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” (1985), possibly the greatest book ever written about Boston.

What brings this history to mind, obviously, is a death threat made against the Globe following the Globe’s campaign to persuade newspapers across the country to editorialize against President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. (Ultimately more than 400 papers joined in.) The suspect, a Trump supporter named Robert Chain, reportedly referred to the Globe as “the enemy of the people,” thus quoting his hero’s oft-tweeted characterization word for word.

Fortunately no one was hurt, just as the anonymous shooter or shooters in 1974 somehow didn’t injure or kill anyone. But Trump’s dangerous words add up to incitement to violence — not in the legal sense, perhaps, but certainly in the moral sense. Our president is a careless and evil man.

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