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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The tainted BuzzFeed News blockbuster: Where do we go from here?

Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.

Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.

So where do we go from here?

First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.

Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.

Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.

Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.

Sunday update: Trump’s lawyer-in-charge-of-digging-the-hole-deeper, Rudy Giuliani, weighs in:

And here’s BuzzFeed reporter Anthony Cormier refusing to back down:

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How greed killed The Weekly Standard

Even the most public-spirited wealthy media owners are not perfect. Jeff Bezos has revived The Washington Post, but working conditions — though not as bad as those in, say, an Amazon warehouse — are hardly as good as they could be at a news organization that is reportedly growing and profitable. John Henry, frustrated by ongoing losses at The Boston Globe, has hired a union-busting law firm in an attempt to bring costs into line — as if that’s going to make for a better, more financially sustainable Globe.

But you’d have to go a long, long way to find an owner as awful as Philip Anschutz, who last week killed The Weekly Standard, reportedly so that he could raid its subscriber list and use it to pump up his Washington Examiner.

The Standard, a political magazine founded in the mid-1990s, has been a leading voice of #NeverTrump conservatism. The Examiner is considerably more pro-Trump. Anschutz is entitled to go full #MAGA, of course. But according to John Podhoretz, one of the Standard’s co-founders, Anschutz actually stood in the way of a possible sale because he wanted the Standard dead and gone lest it compete with the Examiner. Podhoretz writes:

That this is an entirely hostile act is proved by the fact that he and Anschutz have refused to sell the Standard because they want to claim its circulation for another property of theirs. This is without precedent in my experience in publishing, and I’ve been a family observer of and active participant in the magazine business for half a century.

Podhoretz was understandably so filled with rage that he either forgot or refused to name who “he” is. But I assume he’s referring to Anschutz henchman Ryan McKibben, who pulled the trigger last Friday.

As I argued on “Beat the Press” on Friday (above), political magazines like the Standard, National Review, The New Republic and The Nation have never made money. Rather, they have depended on wealthy owners to subsidize them. The losses are relatively small because the magazines themselves are shoestring operations.

The Standard didn’t die because it was losing money — it was supposed to lose money. Instead, as Podhoretz writes, it was murdered.

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Celebrating two decades of ‘Beat the Press’

For the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of something that has grown into a Boston institution: “Beat the Press,” a weekly media-criticism show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) launched by Emily Rooney in 1998.

On Friday night we celebrated with a half-hour retrospective followed by a Q&A on Facebook Live. It was an honor to be part of it. And it was great to see Emily get the credit she’s due both for conceiving of the show and for maintaining its excellence during the past two decades.

There are so many people who are part of the show, and I know that if I start listing them, I’ll leave out others who are just as deserving. You know who you are. I’m filled with appreciation and gratitude for all of you.

And I’m already looking forward to our 25th.

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Talking about ‘Moguls’ with Emily Rooney at the BPL

My WGBH News colleague (and “Beat the Press” host) Emily Rooney and I talked about “The Return of the Moguls” Tuesday in a Facebook Live event at WGBH’s Boston Public Library studio. You can watch by clicking 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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‘Moguls’ on ‘Beat the Press’


Thanks to “Beat the Press” host Emily Rooney for giving me a little time at the end of last Friday’s show to talk about “The Return of the Moguls.”

Boston Globe omits name of reporter who left after harassment accusation

Saturday update: The Boston Business Journal’s Catherine Carlock posted a very good overview Friday night of the Globe’s decision not to identify the reporter who had been forced to resign over sexual-harassment accusations. She also quotes some of the online commentary, including very tough tweets from my former Boston Phoenix colleague Carly Carioli and former Globe journalist Hilary Sargent. She quotes me, too.

If you watch Friday’s “Beat the Press,” you’ll see that I believed the forthcoming Globe story would identify the former employee. I was basing that not just on thinking it was the right thing to do but on some information I’d received as well. So I was pretty surprised to see that the name had been excluded.

This was a tough call. I think Brian McGrory and other Globe executives had two choices, both of them bad. Six months ago, no one would have expected the paper to name a mid-level employee, not especially well known, who had been pushed out over sexual harassment that was apparently serious but involved no touching. But it’s not six months ago. We are all living in the post-Harvey Weinstein era now.

The very same story that omits the name identifies Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) as having been suspended for unspecified allegations. Especially given the Globe’s strong reporting on sexual harassment and assault in restaurants and at the Statehouse, it seems to me that the paper needs to be as transparent as possible about what’s going on in its own house. And if you want to argue that that’s somehow unfair to the former employee in question, I would respond: Yes, in some ways it is unfair. But it’s necessary.

Original Friday item: I just took a quick scan through Boston Globe reporter Mark Arsenault’s story on sexual harassment at the Globe and at other local media organizations, including unspecified charges involving Tom Ashbrook at WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). For the most part it appears to be a fine, thorough piece. But what stands out and will spark hundreds of conversations is the Globe’s decision not to identify a journalist who has been the subject of rumors this week, including on today’s “Kirk and Callahan” show on WEEI Radio (93.7 FM). Arsenault writes:

The Globe chose not to identify the employee in this story because his alleged conduct did not involve physical contact, threats, or persistent harassment, and editors determined it is highly unlikely the newspaper would have identified the accused, or written about his conduct, if this situation had arisen at another private company.

““Yes, we’re well aware that by withholding the identity of the reporter involved, we’ll be accused of a double-standard by people and organizations that are not privy to all the facts,” editor Brian McGrory said in a message to the newsroom from which Arsenault quotes. “I can live with that far more easily than I can live with the thought of sacrificing our values to slake the thirst of this moment.”

Although I can understand McGrory’s judgment given Arsenault’s description of the misconduct (especially the lack of physical contact), I wonder if it is tenable in the current environment. I suspect the name is going to come out anyway given how many people know it. Then again, if Globe executives are convinced that not naming him is the right thing to do, I suppose they’re prepared to live with someone else reporting it. But it leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

A source sent me the full text of McGrory’s memo a little while ago. Here it is.

About three weeks ago, I commissioned a story taking a look at how this and other local media organizations are covering the extraordinary #MeToo movement — at the same time that we’re assessing our own situations and confronting issues from within. It took a while, because all of these stories take a while. Sourcing is painstaking. Accusations are raw. Context is important and can take more time than we’d like.

We’ve done some extraordinary journalism on many fronts of this movement — Yvonne [Abraham], Kay [Lazar], Shirley [Leung], Shelley [Murphy], Devra [First], led by Jen [Peter, senior deputy managing editor]. The list could go on, and there’s more to come. Our standards have been high and meticulously upheld, in terms of what we’ll report and how. Vetting of the stories has been rigorous to the point of painstaking.

Now our story on local media, written by Mark Arsenault, is ready this afternoon, as there’s speculation on talk radio and in the social sphere about a recent situation involving the Globe. Mark addresses this situation in the story, having learned about it because he’s an excellent reporter. But even as Mark is aware of the identity of a journalist who has left the Globe, we’ve made the decision not to publish the name, and here I’ll attempt to explain why.

Quite simply, the transgressions would not meet our standards for a reportable event if they happened at another company. To all our knowledge, nobody was physically touched; no one was persistently harassed; there were no overt threats. We’re covering it because we’re applying an extra measure of transparency to ourselves.

This is not in any way to make light of what happened here. There was conduct highly unbecoming of a Globe journalist, people who justifiably felt victimized, and the potential for conflicts of interest. So the responsible party is no longer at the Globe.

Context, again, is vital in this moment, and it is ever more paramount for the Globe and other reputable news organizations to exercise good judgment in unwavering fashion. There are degrees of misconduct, a spectrum, and we must be careful to recognize it. We’ve been meticulous in bringing this kind of context to all of our reporting on these issues, the things we write and, as often, the things we don’t. This is not the time to lower our standard.

So to answer your inevitable question, yes, we’re well aware that by withholding the identity of the reporter involved, we’ll be accused of a double-standard by people and organizations that are not privy to all the facts. I can live with that far more easily than I can live with the thought of sacrificing our values to slake the thirst of this moment. I’m also well aware that wise people, including people in this room, will disagree. I respect that.

Beyond this, please know that our coverage will continue with all the rigor that we’ve already brought on all fronts. Also know that, even as we believe the culture of this room is in a good place, it can get better and we’re working to improve it.

As always, feel free to drop by or share in any other way your thoughts.

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Print is the Globe’s albatross — and lifeblood

The shame about The Boston Globe’s printing problems (and it will be a tragedy, not a shame, if they’re not fixed soon) is that, online, the paper is doing just fine. Earlier this year the paper reported that it had signed up more than 80,000 digital-only subscribers, the highest number of any regional paper in the country. The website looks good and is regularly updated, although a real mobile app would be welcome. The fall arts preview, which did not arrive with many people’s papers last Sunday, has been posted online; just bookmark it.

Unfortunately, for the second time in a year and a half the dead hand of print has reached out from the grave and grabbed the Globe by the ankle as it attempts to escape the past. It’s not like John Henry and company can walk away from print — print ads still pay most of the bills, and printing other newspapers is an important part of the Globe’s business strategy. That’s why it’s so important that the current meltdown be reversed as soon as possible

Of course we’ll be talking about this on “Beat the Press” tonight.

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White House Correspondents Dinner can’t go on after Trump’s toxic outburst

Last week on “Beat the Press,” I said that even though I’ve been arguing for years that the loathsome White House Correspondents Association dinner should be canceled, it had to go on as scheduled this year lest it look like the media were trying to punish President Trump.

Well, I’m going to flip-flop because of Trump’s incendiary tweet declaring that the press is “the enemy of the American People!”

Needless to say, this sort of rhetoric shows — once again — that Trump is clueless contemptuous about the role of the press in a democratic society. But let me go one step further: This could get someone killed.

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