Putting 2018 in the rear-view mirror: A look back at a tough year in media

Photo illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The ongoing struggles of Boston’s two daily newspapers. What Facebook should do about falsehood-spreading hatemongers like Alex Jones. The FCC’s latest assault on truth, justice, and the American way. And, of course, our 21st annual roundup of outrages against free speech.

With 2018 entering its final days, I thought I’d look back at what I wrote during the past 12 months. Unlike last year, I’m not going with my 10 most-read columns. Instead, I’ve chosen 10 columns that address a range of different issues, presented here in chronological order.

1. Standing up to presidential power — in 1971 (Jan. 17). With President Trump regularly attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of #fakenews, what could have been more welcome than a feel-good movie about the last time the press confronted an out-of-control president? “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, told the tale of The Washington Post’s desperate struggle to catch up with The New York Times, which had beaten them in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. By agreeing with executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) that the Post should go all in, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) established the Post as a great national newspaper — and paved the way for its later coverage of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.

2. The Boston Herald’s new budget-slashing owner (Feb. 14). When previous Herald publisher Pat Purcell took the tabloid into bankruptcy in late 2017, it was supposed to end in a prearranged sale to GateHouse Media, a hedge-fund-owned chain of newspapers known for its cost-cutting. Instead, another hedge-fund-owned chain with an even worse reputation, Digital First Media, swooped in late in the process and bought the Herald for a reported $11.9 million. The Herald has been decimated by Digital First, although the journalists who are still there continue to do good work. How bad did it get? Recently, Herald editor Joe Sciacca was made the editor of seven daily papers and several weeklies in Massachusetts and upstate New York. No doubt Sciacca will do the best he can. But it’s an absurd situation created by owners who clearly don’t care.

3. The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). Since 1998, I’ve been writing a Fourth of July roundup of enemies of free speech, first for The Boston Phoenix, and since 2013 for WGBH News. (My friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer, writes a separate story on censorship at New England’s colleges and universities.) This year’s Muzzles were especially eclectic, featuring not just bogeymen of the right like President Trump and former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci but also former president Barack Obama and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a progressive favorite. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As the late, great defender of the First Amendment Nat Hentoff memorably put it (quoting a friend), “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

4. Boston Globe owner John Henry expresses his frustrations (July 25). Five years into his announcement that he would buy the Globe, I conducted an email Q&A with the billionaire financier, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. And though Henry insisted that he planned to hold onto the Globe “during my lifetime,” he said he was frustrated with the paper’s ongoing losses and failure “to meet budgets.” Cuts were made in the newsroom and elsewhere throughout the fall. The situation reached a public impasse just recently, when the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the Globe’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side, denounced management for bringing in the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day. The Columbia Journalism Review has described the firm as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.” See more here, including a statement from Henry this week that the Globe is now “profitable.”

5. Remembering John McCain (Aug. 27). On the occasion of Sen. McCain’s death, I republished a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000, when I followed McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina as they campaigned in that state’s Republican primary. Bush defeated McCain and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Regardless of what you thought of his politics, Sen. McCain was a great American and a raconteur who enjoyed sparring with the press. Unfortunately, he seems like an anachronism in the poisonous, hyper-polarized atmosphere of 2018.

6. Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech (Sept. 27). Two cheers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms for deleting Jones’ accounts. He’s not just a right-wing conspiracy theorist; he spouts falsehoods that put actual people in real danger, including the Sandy Hook families and the parents of murder victim Seth Rich. But what have we given up when we’ve turned over our First Amendment rights to giant corporations with their own interests and agendas? Social media has become the new public square. And the public has no say in how it’s governed. These days we are all rethinking our relationship with Facebook. We need some sort of public alternative.

7. Our undemocratic system of government (Oct. 10). When the founders wrote the Constitution, they gave us a republic, believing that the will of the majority should be reflected by and tempered through the wisdom of men of their own social and intellectual class. What they did not believe was that the minority should govern the majority — but that’s what we have today. Thanks to a system that favors smaller states, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court despite being supported by far fewer voters than their Democratic opponents. Reform is long overdue.

8. What ails local journalism? (Nov. 12). Probably my favorite topic, and one I’ve turned to on several occasions during the past few years. I decided to highlight this particular column because I used it to concentrate not on the familiar supply side of the crisis (greedy corporate newspaper owners, a diminishing ad market, and technological changes) but on the demand side. In other words, do people really care enough about what is going on in their local communities? And if they don’t, how can local news organizations survive? We need a crash course in civic literacy. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place in city hall unless they understand why it matters.

9. The FCC targets community access TV (Nov. 28). Having already destroyed net neutrality despite an outpouring of public protest, the FCC is now going after a vital source of information at the local level: community access television, the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY news reports. Under a rule change proposed by the telecommunications industry, local cable providers would be able to deduct the cost of funding public access from the fees they pay to cities and towns. As Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television, told me, “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe.’” U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, among others, is trying to protect funding for local access, but FCC chair Ajit Pai has shown little inclination to act in the public interest.

10. My evening with Rachel and Sean (Dec. 6). With news about the Mueller investigation reaching one of its periodic crescendos, I decided to spend an evening watching the two top-rated cable news programs: Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and Sean Hannity’s on Fox News. And though I found the liberal Maddow to be considerably more respectful of actual facts than Hannity, a conspiracy-minded Trump sycophant, I came away thinking that both are contributing to the polarization that is tearing us apart. In nearly 40 years we’ve gone from “And that’s the way it is” to “And here’s the way we will reinforce your pre-existing prejudices.” What a loss.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2019.

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Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech

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

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

No one seriously questions the right of the tech platforms to banish Jones to the far corners of the internet. These services are owned by giant corporations that became fabulously wealthy (Facebook) or at least marginally profitable (Twitter) by offering their customers a controlled experience. Algorithms determine what you are most likely to see, especially on Facebook. Their policies prohibit nudity (usually), profanity (sometimes), copyright violations, and — especially as the manipulation of the 2016 election becomes clear — fake news aimed at swaying public opinion.

This would all be fine except that the platforms — and Facebook in particular — have become our new civic commons. As Josh Marshall, the founder and editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo wrote recently, “To a real extent, the places you can exercise your speech these days are on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. That is really the heart of the problem. A big part of the public square has been gobbled up by closed systems: Facebook especially, but also Google’s YouTube, Twitter, et al.”

Now, as I said, no one is threatening Jones’ ability to reach millions of people through his website, although the weight of his legal problems might put him out of business. (Which would be fine with me.) If need be, he could host his site in another country, or from a server in his basement. But, these days, the platforms are how we extend our reach beyond the relatively small number of people who make the effort to seek us out. Early indications are that traffic to InfoWars dropped by half following Jones’ disappearance from Facebook. Again, that’s fine; Facebook, far from doing anything wrong, is acting responsibly. But with some 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook simply has too much power and influence to be trusted as a conservator of the First Amendment.

As Micah Sifry, who writes about the intersection of technology and civic life, put it in The New Republic, Facebook has usurped our initial hopes that the internet would spark a “civic renaissance” by democratizing information and giving everyone a voice:

With 68 percent of Americans currently using Facebook, it has become the nation’s de facto digital public square, at least in part because the country’s political leaders lacked the civic imagination to insist on a public alternative. With their tacit approval, Facebook built a giant garden for its users, walled off from the open internet. And then, taking advantage of its popularity, Facebook started copying and replacing older public forms of civic engagement with new ones that only live inside its platform.

There is nothing new about this, and in some respects it predates technology. In 2003 I bestowed a New England Muzzle Award (then hosted by The Boston Phoenix, now by WGBH News) upon a mall in the almost-New England suburbs of Albany, New York, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing an antiwar T-shirt. Shopping centers have essentially become the new village square, except that they’re geared toward commerce rather than civic life. In 2017, I awarded Muzzles to YouTube (owned by Google) for suppressing a pro-Israel video by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and to Instagram (owned by Facebook) for deleting a photo of a nude painting posted by the Museum of Fine Arts. Technology companies have become so powerful that they need to take their First Amendment responsibilities seriously.

But the platforms are not common carriers like telephone companies, which are obligated to carry any calls and data that come their way. Nor are they the internet itself, although there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the possibility of censorship now that President Trump’s FCC has done away with net neutrality. The solution, if there is one, is to draw people away from Facebook and toward an idea animated by something other than the profit motive. “If Americans truly want a digital public forum centered on the needs of the citizenry,” writes Sifry, “it has to be built and maintained the same way they’ve built and maintained America’s national parks — as public goods open to all.

Which brings me back to Alex Jones. In theory, his freedom to speak and to publish are intact. In reality, he can’t gain access to the platforms he needs to get his message out. Jones, of course, must be held accountable for the Sandy Hook families who’ve had to go into hiding because of his vicious lies, and for promoting crazy conspiracy theories like the Pizzagate child-sex ring tied to Hillary Clinton, which prompted a deranged individual to show up and start shooting.

The semi-censorship to which Jones has been subjected — quieted, but not silenced — may seem like a small price to pay in order to stop him from harassing innocent people and putting their lives in danger. Given the media environment as it currently exists, the platforms did the right thing by taking away his megaphone. But their actions only underscore what we have lost by granting custody of our free-speech rights to private entities beyond our control. Next time it might be someone who’s far less malevolent than Jones.

We really need to ask ourselves whether we want that accountability to come in the form of giant corporations silencing him simply because it’s good for business. I would not tell Mark Zuckerberg how to run his company, although even he has suggested that he would not be averse to some common-sense regulations. Like Sifry, though, I believe the time has come to try to revive the idea of the internet as a truly public space rather than the private playground of tech billionaires.

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Alex Jones to depart Harvard’s Shorenstein Center

Alex Jones
Alex Jones

Best wishes to Alex Jones, who’s leaving as director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy after 15 years at the helm. The center, part of the Kennedy School, is one of Harvard’s two major journalistic endeavors, the other being the Nieman Foundation.

Alex has enjoyed a long and accomplishment-filled career. He may be best known for co-writing with his wife, the late Susan Tifft, “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times” (1999), the definitive biography of the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

Under Jones’ leadership, Shorenstein has been an important part of the conversation about journalism both locally and nationally. He’ll be missed — but I hope he’s planning on being around often enough that he won’t be missed too much.

Goldsmiths honor journalism in the public interest

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

It started with one miner’s medical and legal nightmare and developed like a John Grisham novel. And finally it led to extensive reform of black lung diagnosis.

The Center for Public Integrity’s and ABC News’ yearlong work won it the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting this week.

It took a medical database and exhaustive scrutiny of previously classified legal findings to produce the series. But Chris Hamby, the Center’s lead reporter, told a Harvard audience on Thursday that his research began with a plight “you just couldn’t ignore”: miner Gary Fox’s “outrageous” treatment by doctors and lawyers.

While Hamby circumvented privacy laws by getting miners’ consent to view their records, ABC News producer Matthew Mosk discovered a law firm that operated “like a John Grisham novel.”

As in past years, finalists for the Goldsmith awards, administered by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, included much such collaboration between media and public service organizations. Goldsmith winners and finalists are traditionally seen as front-runners for Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced next month.

• The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which bills itself as “the world’s best cross-border investigative team,” used Australian, Chinese and British reporters to reveal a universe of offshore money manipulation that has sparked international tax investigations.

ICIJ director Gerald Ryle said he was leaked 2.5 million files via hard drive and is proud that none of his operation’s anonymous informants has been caught. The 50-article series provides important context into powerful figures’ financial machinations. “We didn’t want to be Wikileaks and just dump documents,” he said.

While Ryle said his reporting was attacked in the Australian Senate and drew four libel suits, he noted that a Chinese colleague has faced even more danger. Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was fired and then critically wounded in an attack last month. Ming Pao was one of ICIJ’s partners in the Offshore Leaks investigation.

• Another wide-ranging project was a bilingual multimedia revelation of widespread sexual assault against immigrant women by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Frontline,” Univision and KQED.

Reporter Andres Cediel said it took 18 months after an anonymous tip to produce the series, which has sparked criminal charges and pending legislation. The problem: he was committed to telling their story in a human way, but the victims were afraid to talk on camera. His colleague Bernice Young said it took countless trips going door to door to gain their trust. “It was a long, slow process to build a relationship,” she said.

“Frontline” producer-correspondent Lowell Bergman, lead reporter on the project, noted that this was Univision’s first foray into investigative reporting and predicted more such efforts in foreign language media.

• Shorenstein director Alex Jones said the free weekly Miami New Times was “punching above its weight” when it tackled the steroid industry.

New Times managing editor Tim Elfrink, who noted his paper had previously done investigative reporting on a very local scale, said the series started when a whistleblower came to him irate over a $4,000 dispute. The informant gave him a bunch of confusing documents about a Biogenesis operation running out of a Coral Gables strip mall. Elfrink called thousands of clients’ phone numbers — getting rejected 90 percent of the time — but eventually scanned court records to uncover the shady records of some clinic operators.

The stories, which have won a prestigious Polk Award, led to the suspension of 13 baseball players and changed how baseball owners and players approach drug use.

• Seeking national impact and backed by supportive news executives, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel scoured medical records throughout the country to expose potentially fatal flaws in newborn screening. Lead reporter Ellen Garber led a five-person team through a maze of withheld data and official denials.

When her data requests were denied, she had to negotiate state by state for records — finally penetrating the system by discovering that Arizona had kept detailed records of newborns babies from a small Native American tribe. She then confronted the head of that state’s health department, who finally released complete records.

Garber said the series, which has won the Taylor Award for fairness in journalism and the prestigious Selden Ring award for the year’s top investigative work, has had an “incredible impact,” revamping the system so blood samples arrive promptly.

• The Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips doesn’t consider himself an investigative reporter, but after covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he followed up his novelist brother’s discussions with a psychiatric researcher. This led to the discovery of secret lobotomies of servicemen after World War II.

His problem was to find out how widespread this pattern was. Freedom of Information requests denied, he turned to the National Archives, which he recommends as a fertile source of vintage information. He unearthed 18 boxes of surgical records filed under “L” — lobotomy. He picked the cases with unusual names, thinking their families would be easier to trace after more than 60 years. The multimedia presentation revealed that more than 2,000 servicemen were lobotomized, and he was able to portray some surviving victims.

• Putting a human face on a “numbers” story is a perennial challenge for investigative reporters.

Reuters staffers Scot Paltrow and Kelly Carr found egregious and widespread Defense Department accounting mistakes. Their editors shared the view of the subject’s importance but wrestled with how to make it interesting.

“Vast amounts of dollars resonates little,” said Paltrow. So they settled on a human-interest beginning to show how massive programs affect individuals:

EL PASO, Texas — As Christmas 2011 approached, U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was once again locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe…. This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department. Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered…. But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Pushing back against the White House anti-leak crusade

By Bill Kirtz

Leading news figures this weekend blasted expanding investigations of national-security leaks, detailed the dilemma of dealing with confidential sources and offered ways to restore credibility in a media universe that merges fact with fiction.

Their comments came at Boston’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference attended by some 1,200 established and aspiring journalists.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said the Obama administration’s widening probes have created an “urgent” problem because it has a “chilling effect” on confidential sources. She said the current Washington environment “has never been tougher and [confidential] information harder to dislodge.”

She said the attorney general’s latest attempts to ferret out leakers raise the question of whether the U.S. Espionage Act “is being used as a substitute for” Britain’s wide-ranging Official Secrets Act.

Using the Espionage Act, the current administration is pursuing six leak-related criminal cases. That’s twice as many as all previous administrations combined brought since the act was passed in 1917 to punish anyone who “knowingly and willfully” passes on information that hurts the country or helps a foreign power “to the detriment of the United States.”

The Official Secrets Act makes it unlawful to disclose information relating to defense, security and intelligence, international relations, intelligence gained from other departments or international organizations and intelligence useful to criminals.

Alluding to recent Times stories about U.S. drone strikes and computer attacks aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Abramson said the government’s policy on cyber warfare is an important subject about which the public needs to know.

The vast majority of her paper’s national-security disclosures come from “old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting” and not from leaks, she said. And before they run, she said, “We give all responsible officials a chance to reply” and will hold or cut information if they raise a legitimate security objection.

Times media columnist David Carr called the government investigations an “appalling” attempt to restrict information about significant issues.

“Whistle-blowers aren’t scarce but the people who blow them are,” he said, citing as an example the indictment of a National Security Agency worker who told a Baltimore Sun reporter about a failed technology program.

“As war becomes less visible and becomes its own ‘dark ops,’ reporters are trying to punch through and bring accountability,” he said. Carr added that while it’s easy to say leak-based scoops come gift-wrapped, they usually come from reporters working hard and asking the right questions. Continue reading “Pushing back against the White House anti-leak crusade”

An entertaining look at the New York Times

David Carr torments a flack at Tribune Co.

At long last, I got to see “Page One: Inside the New York Times” at a screening last night at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It’s a terrifically entertaining look at the culture inside the Times newsroom, focusing on the media desk’s coverage of the newspaper meltdown of 2009 and ’10. I brought a couple of students with me, and they were pretty enthusiastic about it as we were driving back to Northeastern.

As you have no doubt heard, the stars are columnist David Carr and reporter Brian Stelter, two people whose talents, though formidable, pale in comparison to their inhuman productivity. Carr easily slips into the role of Carr, a late-middle-aged reformed drug addict who genially F-bombs his way through interviews and public appearances, building up to his monumental takedown of Tribune Co. and its abusive owner, Sam Zell. Stelter, young and earnest, is the perfect counterpoint. (I know both of them slightly, Carr better than Stelter.)

Director Andrew Rossi and Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones kicked it around afterwards.

An obsessive media junkie probably won’t learn much, but I really enjoyed being immersed in Timesland for 90 minutes. Quibbles? As a friend observed, the documentary was heavily tilted toward men, which seems odd given that before it ends, we see the executive editor’s baton being passed from Bill Keller to Jill Abramson.

And though it was unavoidable, the sense of panic that pervaded the business when the film was being shot has abated to at least some degree. We’re hardly out of the woods. It seems that every day, we hear about cost-cutting and layoffs. But the notion that was prevalent a year or two ago, that the entire newspaper business was in its death throes, now appears to have been exaggerated. If “Page One” were shot today, I suspect it would be more optimistic.