In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Twenty-four years ago, Emily Rooney — whose long-running media-criticism program, “Beat the Press,” on which I was a panelist, was canceled last week by GBH News — was just beginning a new phase of her career, as host and executive editor of the news and public-affairs program “Greater Boston.” I wrote a piece for The Boston Phoenix about her debut as well as the state of the rivalry between WGBH and WBUR — a rivalry that, if anything, is more intense today than it was then. This story was published on Feb. 7, 1997. I’m republishing it here courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

The Boston Phoenix • Feb. 7, 1997

Emily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

Continue reading “In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry”

Best wishes to Emily Rooney as ‘Beat the Press’ comes to an end after 22 years

Our 20th anniversary show, Dec. 7, 2018

Major local media news today as GBH News has announced that it’s canceling “Beat the Press” after a 22-year run. I am proud to have been part of the show since its first year, 1998, and to have been a regular for many of those years. And I’m grateful to Emily Rooney, the host and creator of the show. We’ve been on hiatus since June 11; as it turns out, that was our finale.

I’ll continue writing my weekly column on media and politics for GBH News.

It’s hard to put into words what I’m feeling right now. For so many years, heading over to GBH to record “Beat the Press” was simply what I did on Friday afternoons. I hugely enjoyed getting to know Emily, Callie Crossley and everyone else. (I’ll stop at Emily and Callie because if I start naming names, I’ll leave too many out.)

Emily began hosting “Greater Boston” in the mid-’90s. From the beginning it was a Monday-through-Thursday show, with the Friday slot originally taken up by something called “The Long and the Short of It,” with Robert Reich and Alan Simpson. After that show had run its course, Emily pitched “Beat the Press” to WGBH executives (yes, the station still had a “W” back then), and we were off and running.

I haven’t had a chance to talk with Emily yet, but I wish her all the best. She is a legendary figure in Boston media, as news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), at the national level and, for the past quarter century, at GBH News. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

Finally, best wishes to Kara Miller, whose program on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM), “Innovation Hub,” will be coming to an end later this year as well.

What follows is the press release from GBH News:

GBH continues to build a multiplatform news organization that provides our community with the most distinctive, relevant and interesting stories of the day. GBH News is deepening its focus on audience-centered local stories, and concentrating its editorial efforts on the critical issues of education, social justice, Covid/public health and politics. As a result, GBH will discontinue production of two weekly programs, Beat the Press with Emily Rooney, which examines the local and national media, and the national radio series Innovation Hub with Kara Miller.

“This was a difficult decision. Beat the Press has been one of GBH’s longest running news shows and has provided viewers with informative and thought-provoking insight, commentary and perspective on the workings of the media. We are grateful to Emily Rooney for her award-winning work, her dedication to her craft, and her many contributions to GBH over 24 years.”

Innovation Hub has given us a deeper understanding of the inventive spirit of human ideas and technology over the course of a decade. We thank Kara Miller and the Innovation Hub production team for their exceptional work, creativity and contributions to public media.”

– Pam Johnston, General Manager GBH News

Beat the Press is currently on summer hiatus and will not return in September; Innovation Hub will continue to air through mid-November in national distribution with PRX.

Still more on The Emancipator

Ben Smith of The New York Times weighs in on The Emancipator, the antiracist digital publication that will be launched later this year by The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

Of note: Former Globe reporter Wesley Lowery, who later clashed with now-retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron over his use of social media, may be coming back.

As Smith describes it, The Emancipator will have a seven-figure budget and will blend “reportage, opinion and academic research, some of which will appear in The Globe.” Founders Bina Venkataraman, the Globe’s opinion editor, and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Antiracist Center, say they also want to “revive the tradition of a generation of media that predates the formal division of news and opinion in 20th-century American journalism.”

Well, that’s fine. I’m sure they know that any number of quality magazines already do that. It was a hallmark of the alternative press as well. Not to say it isn’t a good idea, but there are contemporary models they can look to.

We also talked about The Emancipator on “Beat the Press” last Friday. The video is above.

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.”