NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Conn., at the Boston demonstration against racism in August 2017. Photo (cc) 2017 by Dan Kennedy.

Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.

I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.

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Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.

Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.

And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:

NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.

The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….

The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.

And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.

The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.

All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.

Warren posts video in support of the Globe’s union

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has posted a video in support of the Boston Newspaper Guild, which is involved in protracted contract talks with The Boston Globe. No word on what happened to the Mark Ruffalo video, which was taken down not long after it was published.

Jack Thomas writes a moving farewell

Former Boston Globe writer Jack Thomas recently learned that he has just a few months to live. He’s written a deeply moving reflection.

Mark Ruffalo video backs union at The Boston Globe

Mark Ruffalo, who portrayed then-Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes in the movie “Spotlight,” has recorded a video supporting the Boston Newspaper Guild in its push for a new contract.

Update, July 17. As you can see, the video has been taken down. No idea why.

Previous coverage.

Three Boston Globe unions raise specter of a possible strike

In the latest development in protracted labor strife at The Boston Globe, the Boston Newspaper Guild this morning issued a statement expressing solidarity with two other unions that represent Globe employees, the Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists. The Guild, which represents the newsroom, the advertising staff and several other departments, also raised the specter of a possible strike.

“All employees at The Boston Globe deserve respect,” the three unions said in a letter to management. “Yet, union members representing Globe staff have experienced management’s hostile anti-worker posture during the course of each union’s recent and protracted contract negotiations. We are coming together to say enough is enough.”

In response, Claudia Henderson, chief human resources officer for Boston Globe Media Partners, said in an email: “The Boston Globe has been committed to negotiating with all of our labor partners to provide workplace benefits and protections while ensuring our ability to continue our growth and investment in all of our newsrooms.”

Henderson’s full statement appears below. But first, the Guild’s statement:

Workforce unrest spreads at Boston Globe

Three different unions denounce “hostile” and “harmful” tactics by executives at New England’s largest newspaper

BOSTON, MA – Workers from three different labor organizations at New England’s largest newspaper are joining in chorus to decry working conditions and “harmful tactics” by John Henry and Linda Pizzuti Henry’s executive team. Together, the three groups represent hundreds of workers in nearly every department throughout The Boston Globe’s operations, including truck drivers, reporters, photographers and more.

After drawing heat for engaging former President Donald J. Trump campaign’s law firm of choice to handle labor negotiations, which prompted a “scathing rebuke” from Globe journalists about ethical concerns presented by the anti-worker firm’s hiring, Henry and Pizzuti Henry now face increasing criticism from beyond just the Guild union that represents newsroom staff.

Leaders from the Teamsters union and the International Association of Machinists have now joined with members in the Boston Newspaper Guild in calling the treatment of workers “dismissive” and “disrespectful” in a joint letter sent to top Globe brass on Thursday, including Henry and Pizzuti Henry.

“By continuing to engage in actions that foment strife within the company, you run the risk of rupturing that trust and of continuing to lose the talented workers who are the foundation of the company’s recent and future success,” said the letter to Boston Globe executives, which was signed by Stephen Sullivan, President of GCC/Teamsters Local 3 Boston; Michael Vartabedian, Assistant Directing Business Representative of the International Association of Machinists, District 15; and Scott Steeves, President of the Boston Newspaper Guild (BNG-TNG/CWA Local 31245).

In a recent internal poll, an overwhelming super-majority of members from the largest of those units, the Boston Newspaper Guild, said they would support a strike authorization vote if one were called by their bargaining committee.

“All employees at The Boston Globe deserve respect. Yet, union members representing Globe staff have experienced management’s hostile anti-worker posture during the course of each union’s recent and protracted contract negotiations,” read the letter. “We are coming together to say enough is enough.”

The communication marks a turning point as it represents the first coordinated action by the three different unions, all citing similar concerns with the approach being taken by Henry and Pizzuti Henry. Henry and Pizzuti Henry also own the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League.

In the spring, members of the Boston Newspaper Guild recorded a key victory when journalists at the Globe-operated health news website STAT joined the Guild. Previously, Pizzuti Henry’s announcement as the next CEO of the publication was clouded by the labor strife that has overtaken the Globe.

Workers at the Globe held out some hope that Pizzuti Henry would move on from the hostile, anti-worker policies being pushed before her tenure, but Globe employees say that the new CEO has failed to reconcile the differences causing an increasing schism at the publication.

Now, with multiple unions coalescing in the form of today’s letter and with talk of a potential strike vote, Pizzuti Henry and her executives face a mounting crisis of confidence at the Globe, even as management touts their increasing digital subscriber rates.

The members of all three unions have each been attempting to negotiate fair contracts at the Globe for more than two years. The Globe has generally failed to disclose its financial ties to Jones Day when running stories related to the controversial law firm and its suits, including those related to the 2020 election.

The executives named in the letter to Globe executives included:

Linda P. Henry, Chief Executive Officer, Boston Globe
John W. Henry, Owner, Boston Globe
Arch Carpenter, Senior Vice President of Print Operations
Claudia Henderson, Chief Human Resources Officer, Boston Globe Media Partners
Dan Krockmalnic, General Counsel, Boston Globe Media Partners
David Carillo, Chief Financial Officer, The Henry Organization
David Dahl, Deputy Managing Editor, Boston Globe
Jason Tuohey, Managing Editor – Digital, Boston Globe
Rich Ford, Director, Total Rewards
Trish Dunn, Partner, Jones Day

And, finally, Henderson’s statement:

The Boston Globe has been committed to negotiating with all of our labor partners to provide workplace benefits and protections while ensuring our ability to continue our growth and investment in all of our newsrooms. We are incredibly proud of the way this entire organization has continuously served our community. Throughout the time that we have been bargaining, we have sought to create a more evolved ethics  policy, and have created policies to allow for additional benefits during the pandemic, including $2,000 for employees with young children, $500 for home office set ups, care.com memberships, and additional days off for staff  to use in whatever ways work best for employees. We look forward to getting to resolution on all contracts and will always value the partnerships.

Major news outlets are running a tobacco company’s ads on their websites

More than two decades after cigarette ads began disappearing from newspapers, major news organizations are running ads on their websites from tobacco giant Philip Morris touting the company’s research into smoke-free tobacco products.

I began reporting this piece after an alert reader called my attention to an ad in The Boston Globe titled “Science leading to a smoke-free future,” which appeared over the weekend and was in rotation as recently as Monday. But in Googling around, it didn’t take long to find that similar Philip Morris ads have been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Reuters. No doubt they’ve appeared in many other outlets, too.

These are not ads that were automatically served up to news websites by Google. Rather, they are sponsored content, produced in collaboration with the news organization that publishes them. Such content, also known as “native advertising,” use type and layout that differ from the typical presentation. It’s also accompanied by disclosures that it was paid for by the advertisers and that the news and editorial departments had no involvement in its production.

Regular readers know that I’m a defender of native ads as long as there is sufficient disclosure, and I have no problem with the way these news organizations handle them. But partnering with a major tobacco company on an ad promoting research into tobacco products? Really?

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These ads appear under the byline of Dr. Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications at Philip Morris. Some excerpts from the Globe version:

We are now on a path to one day, hopefully soon in many countries in which we operate, completely replace cigarette sales with smoke-free alternatives that are a better choice for the people around the world who smoke today. These are nicotine-containing products that do not burn tobacco, which — while not risk-free — are a much better choice than continuing to smoke….

The fundamental principle that drives our scientific work is the widely accepted fact that nicotine — while addictive and not risk-free — is not the primary cause of smoking-related disease. It’s the burning of tobacco that creates the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke — which is why from the outset we design our smoke-free products to eliminate burning, thus eliminating smoke while providing an alternative that smokers find acceptable and will actually use.

According to Michael Moore of Australia’s George Institute for Public Health in Australia, and a past president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the Philip Morris ads are the latest in a series of tactics by Big Tobacco to win acceptance for e-cigarettes. In an article he wrote last year for the European Journal of Public Health, he identified other tactics employed by the tobacco companies as “use of the term ‘harm reduction,’” social-media attacks on critics, hiring lobbyists, and touting e-cigarettes as a method for quitting smoking. According to a summary of his article:

Tobacco companies face an ever-increasing rate of marginalisation. They use eCigarettes as an opportunity to improve their credibility. In the past it was “just filter it” and “light cigarettes”. More recently, Philip Morris established a “Foundation for a Smoke-free World” pumping millions of dollars into distorting arguments about harm reduction.

And, yes, Moore gives Gilchrist a shoutout: “To enhance arguments, Big Tobacco has deployed public health figures like Dr Derek Yach and Dr Moira Gilchrist.”

When I asked Megan Arendt, a spokeswoman for the anti-tobacco organization Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), about the Philip Morris ads, she told me by email: “In a perfect world, vapes would only be marketed to (and sold to) adult people who smoke. But given their clear history of targeting children, an ad ban should include all tobacco products.”

The Philip Morris ad doesn’t promote smoking or even vaping, which has its own health risks. (On Monday, Juul reached a $40 million settlement with North Carolina over a lawsuit charging that the vaping company marketed to kids. Massachusetts is suing as well.) But the ad does talk about “ensuring our smoke-free products deliver a consistent aerosol” — so the intended user of the products being developed would still be inhaling.

Cigarette advertising is legal in U.S. newspapers. The papers couldn’t be banned from accepting such ads because of First Amendment protections, but the tobacco companies themselves could be prohibited from advertising. In 1970, President Richard Nixon (yes, everything really does go back to Nixon) signed legislation banning cigarette ads from television and radio, but those are regulated media.

The New York Times banned cigarette ads in April 1999, but said the policy didn’t apply to other papers it owned, which at that time included the Globe. That July, the Globe’s then-ombudsman, Jack Thomas, took his bosses to task and called for the Globe to follow the example set by the Times and other papers. He wrote that “publishers are still in conflict, still seduced by the revenue from tobacco ads but also uneasy in the role of a siren luring readers into a deathtrap.”

My research trail went cold after I found the Thomas piece, but at some point the Globe stopped accepting cigarette ads, as did virtually all other newspapers. As ASH’s Arendt says, the Globe — and every media outlet — should take the next step and refuse to accept ads for tobacco products. Claims that the products are only intended for adults who want a safer alternative to smoking are nice, but you know what? They’ll find those products without the complicity of news organizations.

Two Globe copy editors are retiring

A couple of stalwarts on the Boston Globe’s copy desk are retiring. The following is an email to the staff from Mary Creane, the Globe’s senior assistant managing editor for production. The last line is key: “We will be filling both jobs.” What follows is the text of her email, which someone forwarded to me a little while ago.

Hi All

Bob Scherer-Hoock has decided to hang up his pica pole, proportion wheel, and non-repro blue pen (look them up).

Bob has been a rock on every iteration of the copy desk for many years. He helped with the implementation of four (maybe five) content management systems and still finds ways to make Methode do things that baffle many of us.

If he has touched a story, it has come out better. If he has laid out a page, it is uncluttered and clean.

We will miss his skills, but also his dry and penetrating wit and his compassion.

Bob’s last shift with us is July 8.

ALSO

John Harrington is leaving us as well. John has been a stalwart on the desk with a speciality in Business and Boston.

He knows where everything is in Boston and can tell you where to eat and what to get when you get there.

Stories edited by John are more clear and have fewer extraneous words than when he started.

We will miss his broad knowledge of the city and its history as well as his humor and haikus.

John’s last shift with us is July 15.

We will find a way to say goodbye properly, in the meantime, ask Bob all your Methode questions now and get John to give you a dining recommendation….

We will be filling both jobs.

 

Pulitzer notes: A big win for the Globe; plus, ownership matters, and recognizing Darnella Frazier’s courage

Journalism is a field overrun with prizes. But the Pulitzers still matter — and the recognition shown The Boston Globe on Friday was impressive.

As you no doubt have heard, five current and former Globe journalists won in the Investigative Reporting category “for reporting that uncovered a systematic failure by state governments to share information about dangerous truck drivers that could have kept them off the road, prompting immediate reforms.” That’s the first time the Globe has been recognized for its investigative work since it won the Public Service Award in 2003 for its coverage of the pedophile-priest crisis in the Catholic Church.

The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing for its commentary on a zoning battle in Newton, and its sister publication Stat was a finalist in Breaking News for its coverage of COVID-19. One of the three Stat finalists was Sharon Begley, who died of lung cancer earlier this year.

In a video accompanying the Globe’s own coverage, editor Brian McGrory addressed a topic of vital importance — the role of a regional news organization in the powerful to account. Here’s part of what he said.

I was asked last night at a panel I was on about the lack of relevance, and how major metro newspapers are becoming decreasingly relevant in a really tough media age. And I thought about it for a minute, and I came to realize — not for the first time — I’ve been here 30-something years, and the Globe has never felt more relevant to the community than it does now. And all you have to do is look at the work we do day in and day out. The work that’s unfolding right now on the police department, on City Hall, on state government. Name a topic, and it’s every department firing on all cylinders.

Indeed, the Globe is driving the conversation on all of those stories, even amid fine work by other news organizations, including my friends at GBH News, WBUR, CommonWealth Magazine, The Bay State Banner, The Dorchester Reporter, DigBoston, local TV stations and others.

Ownership matters

Unfortunately, the Globe is unusual by the standards of 2021. Take a look at the list of Pulitzer winners. Overwhelmingly, the prizes went to news organizations with solid ownership. The Globe, of course, has been owned for the past seven-plus years by John Henry and Linda Pizzuti Henry, who have steered it to profitability and stability while maintaining the paper’s reporting capacity.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis is owned by another wealthy business person, Glen Taylor, who has revived a paper that was on the ropes not too many years ago. The Tampa Bay Times is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute — a situation that hasn’t been entirely happy, but that has resulted in more robust coverage than if it were owned by a for-profit chain.

The Marshall Project is a well-funded nonprofit. The New York Times, though a publicly traded company, has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. The Atlantic is largely owned by Laurene Powell Jobs, who inherited the late Steve Jobs’ fortune. BuzzFeed News is run as much for love as for profit.

I could go on, but you get the picture. All across the country, newsrooms at regional and local newspapers are being ravaged by corporate chains and hedge funds. The Pulitzers demonstrate, as I have said over and over, that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Speaking truth to power

There had been some buzz in recent weeks that a Pulitzer ought to be awarded to Darnella Frazier, the then-17-year-old who turned her smartphone camera toward George Floyd as he was being murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin.

The Pulitzer judges were thinking the same thing. Frazier was awarded a Special Citation “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”

Rarely has a Pulitzer been more deserved. But it will be for naught if that’s the end of it. Frazier’s work should inspire people everywhere to stand up for what is right. Without her bravery, Chauvin might still be on the beat, terrorizing the citizens of Minneapolis.

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker promoted to an associate editor’s position

Adrian Walker

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker has been promoted to associate editor, according to an email sent to the staff by editor Brian McGrory, managing editor Jennifer Peter and managing editor for digital Jason Tuohey. I obtained a copy of the email from a trusted source a little while ago.

Walker, a longtime state and local government reporter and editor, has been a columnist since 1998, when the Globe’s star metro columnists, Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, were forced out after they were caught fabricating and, in Barnicle’s case, plagiarizing as well. (McGrory himself was the other reporter who became a columnist at that time.)

As one of the more prominent Black journalists at the Globe, Walker’s increased clout should help with ongoing efforts to diversify the newsroom.

Walker has brought a reporter’s sensibility to his column, deftly combining news and opinion. According to the memo, he’ll continue to write his column. The full memo follows:

We’re delighted to share the news that Adrian Walker will ascend to the role of associate editor at the Globe.

Adrian is obviously an enduring voice in this community, having helmed a metro column for 22 years and running. More importantly, he’s a vital voice. Few columnists face the test of time with the spectacular success of Adrian. These days, he is at the peak of his relevance, with deeply reported pieces that time and again offer an authoritative look at what was, what is, and what needs to be. He knows Boston like few others — the people, the places, the problems, the possibilities. And he is at once logical, unpredictable, and fearless in his approach. When Adrian speaks, people listen. Before he speaks, they await his thoughts.

Same goes for inside the Globe. Adrian has been a valuable source of counsel to many staffers, including us, ever since he arrived here from Miami in 1989. He’s covered City Hall and the State House, served as a deputy political editor, written about four different Boston mayors and six governors, and was, of course, a key part of the Pulitzer-finalist team on the race project in 2017. He’s been a thoughtful colleague and an important mentor to hundreds of people over the years.

We look forward to many more columns from Adrian, with an even broader impact within our newsroom.

Brian, Jen, and Jason

The Globe adds a R.I. podcast; the union pleads its case in a full-page ad

A couple of yin and yang notes about The Boston Globe this morning.

First, the paper has expanded its Rhode Island coverage by adding a podcast, “Rhode Island Report.” The guest for the debut is former Gov. Gina Raimondo, now the U.S. secretary of commerce.

It’s good to see the Globe doubling down on Rhode Island, which has really been underserved by Gannett’s Providence Journal. But I’ve been noticing more and more Rhode Island coverage making its way into the Globe’s print edition. I thought the idea was to leverage digital. If this continues, I hope there will be some consideration given to replating so that there are separate print editions for Greater Boston and Rhode Island.

I also hope John and Linda Henry are giving some consideration to expanding in Worcester, which is a virtual news desert these days. You may recall that employees at the city’s daily, the Telegram & Gazette, said John Henry promised to sell it to local interests or keep the paper after he acquired it from the New York Times Co. as part of the Globe deal. Instead, he sold it to a Florida chain, and it eventually was passed off to GateHouse Media, now Gannett. (When I asked Henry about it several years ago, he told me he believed he had only promised not to sell to GateHouse.)

Second, the Greater Boston Labor Council, the Greater Boston Building Trades Union and the Communication Workers of America have purchased a full-page ad in today’s Globe in support of the Boston Newspaper Guild’s long quest for a new contract. You can see the ad here.