Is it permissible to call someone an Iranian spy if the facts are somewhat more nuanced than that? Apparently the answer is yes — at least according to U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs.
Burroughs recently dismissed a libel claim brought in Boston by Kaveh Afrasiabi against United Press International and Struan Stevenson, writing that an article written by Stevenson, whose headline referred to Afrasiabi as an “Iranian spy,” was a matter of clearly labeled opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment. I learned about the case from Adam Gaffin, who wrote about it at Universal Hub last Friday.
There are a lot of fascinating details in Burroughs’ opinion. Most of it is based on long-settled law that opinion is protected as long as there is some factual support for it, or if it cannot be proven true or false. Afrasiabi’s complaint was based on the headline, “Iranian spy arrested by FBI was wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Burroughs found that “wolf in sheep’s clothing” was pure opinion, whereas the reference to him as a spy was a matter of opinion grounded at least in part in the factual record as well as because the entire piece was opinion.
“Although the term ‘spy’ is arguably capable of being proved false, the phrase ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ plainly is not,” she wrote. “Given that the term ‘Iranian spy’ is followed by ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ the entire headline, read together as it must be, is clearly a statement of opinion.”
Moreover, Afrasiabi has been charged with failing to register with the U.S. government under the terms of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Afrasiabi has asserted that he never engaged in espionage against the United States.
As Gaffin observes, the judge’s ruling also references a Boston Herald case involving the suicide of Brad Delp, lead singer of the band Boston, which found that you can’t go looking for nuance in headlines. Quoting from that decision, she wrote: “A newspaper need not choose the most delicate word available in constructing its headline; it is permitted some drama in grabbing its reader’s attention, so long as the headline remains a fair index of what is accurately reported below.”
Here is the heart of Judge Burroughs’ decision, which found that Stevenson laid out the facts, allowing readers to determine whether they agreed with the headline or not:
Because Mr. Stevenson accurately presented the facts surrounding Dr. Afrasiabi’s background, arrest, and criminal charges in the Article, neither he nor UPI can be held liable for defamation based on his opinion that those facts render Dr. Afrasiabi an “Iranian spy” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” … Put slightly differently, because the Article permits the reader to form his or her own opinion about whether the facts presented make Dr. Afrasiabi a “spy” and/or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the statement is not actionable.
Finally: What, may you ask, is UPI these days? Does it have anything to do with the UPI of the 20th century, which for decades was The Associated Press’ main rival? The answer is no, not really.
According to Wikipedia, which seems to have the most up-to-date information, UPI today is part of News World Communications, which in turn was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. News World used to own The Washington Times as well, but that paper is now owned by a different Moon entity.
The Boston Globe’s strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions is paying off, according to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. For the six-month period ending on March 31 of this year, the Globe’s paid weekday circulation was 331,482, up 81,201, or 32%, over the same period a year earlier. On Sundays, the Globe’s paid circulation was 387,312, up 73,347, or 23%.
The increase came despite the continued shrinkage of the print edition. Weekday print was 77,679, a decline of 16%. Sunday print is 135,696, down nearly 15%. Paid digital now accounts for nearly 77% of the Globe’s circulation on weekdays and 65% on Sundays — numbers that no doubt had a lot to do with the hunger for local and regional news during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers were not nearly as rosy at the Boston Herald, which has been gutted by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paid weekday circulation, print and digital, is now 56,791, a decline of 9,686, or more than 14%. Sunday circulation is 58,461, down 14%. Digital is essentially flat, with nearly all of the decrease coming from the Herald’s fading print product. The Herald today sells an average of 22,032 print papers every weekday and 25,892 on Sundays.
The new circulation figures at the Globe and the Herald come amid a massive decline in print circulation nationwide. According to the Press Gazette, a British website that covers the news business, print circulation of the top 25 U.S. dailies fell from 4.2 million to 3.4 million over the past year, a decline of 20%.
Especially harrowing was USA Today, which lost 303,000, or 62%. As we all know, the paper is highly dependent on hotel distribution, which took a massive hit during the pandemic. Gannett recently announced that some of USA Today’s content would move behind a paywall.
Correction: I botched one of the numbers and have updated this post.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a 2017 ruling by the FCC to loosen media ownership regulations, including an end to the so-called cross-ownership ban. That ban prohibits one entity from owning a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.
The FCC’s long, tortured history on cross-ownership shaped the Boston media scene from the 1950s through the ’80s. Although the ban wasn’t formalized until 1975, the FCC had much to say about the issue well before that. No one told the story better than John Aloysius Farrell in his 2001 book “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” which I wrote about for The Boston Phoenix.
It’s a pretty amazing tale, and it’s crucial if you want to understand how the dynamic between The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald played out over the course of those decades. The very short version: the Boston Herald Traveler, with the support of the Kennedys, obtained the license to Channel 5 in the 1950s through corrupt means. The Globe, with the help of O’Neill, then a young congressman, exposed that corruption. That, in turn, led to the Herald’s losing the license to Channel 5 in the early 1970s, thus cementing the Globe’s status as the city’s dominant daily newspaper.
The final act played out in the late 1980s when Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, bought Channel 25 and sought a waiver from the FCC that would have allowed him to keep both. Sen. Ted Kennedy slipped an amendment into a bill that made it virtually impossible for the FCC to grant such a waiver. Several years later Murdoch sold the Herald to Pat Purcell, a longtime lieutenant. Although the Herald enjoyed a few years of prosperity under Purcell, it eventually entered a long, slow decline, ending in bankruptcy and the sale to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018.
So now that the cross-ownership ban is gone, what’s next? A number of organizations, including the media-reform group Free Press, opposed the FCC’s move, arguing that it will make it more difficult for local groups, including those representing women and people of color, to acquire media outlets. I agree, although there’s also a case to be made that newspapers and, to some extent, broadcast media are so moribund that ownership regulations are more about the last century than this one.
It does seem likely to me that we’re going to see newsrooms that combine newspaper and broadcast operations in an attempt to save money. We’ll see less diversity and less coverage as a result. But given that virtually all media have shifted to the unregulated internet, the ultimate effect of such consolidation is yet to be determined.
It looks like 2020 is going to end on a suitably terrible note for the future of local and regional news.
The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for depriving its newspaper chain of staff, resources and even office space, is planning to make a play for majority control of Tribune Publishing Co., which owns such storied titles as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York’s Daily News. The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Wednesday.
Alden has owned 32% of Tribune for a while and, as Julie Reynolds reports for the union publication NewsMatters, has essentially been calling the shots. She writes:
The hedge fund has left its classic stamp of profiteering across the news chain’s operations — letting Tribune’s digital efforts flounder where other chains have thrived, shutting down newsrooms and offices after defaulting on rent, slashing reporter and other staff pay during the pandemic crisis, and now being sued by shareholders — all while Alden’s officers on the board are handsomely rewarded for this “performance.”
As Reynolds notes, Tribune has been closing newsrooms — including just this week at the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily paper in the country, according to Western Mass. Politics & Insight. The move comes not long after the Courant outsourced its printing to The Republican of Springfield.
Alden’s own MediaNews Group papers have been shutting newsrooms as well. In Massachusetts, the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg was rendered homeless several years ago. During the summer, Northeastern journalism student (and “Beat the Press” intern) Deanna Schwartz and I learned that the Braintree office of MNG’s Boston Herald had apparently closed, with operations moved to The Sun of Lowell, another MNG property.
Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible that new newsrooms will be found for some of these papers after the pandemic has ended. A number of papers — including The Boston Globe — have kept their offices even though nearly all of their employees are working from home. That’s an expensive proposition. Still, it would hardly be a surprise if Alden decides that what few journalists it still employs can work from home indefinitely.
That would be a mistake. News organizations, like most businesses, thrive on collaboration and ideas that bubble up from teamwork. Then again, there is no sign that Alden executives care.
Tribune’s daily newspapers are, for the most part, larger and have more vitality than MNG’s collection of dailies and weeklies. The metros that MNG publishes, such as The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register, have already been trashed beyond recognition. Earlier this fall, Larry Ryckman, co-founder of the start-up Colorado Sun, said at a conference that at one time the Post and its now-defunct daily competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed about 600 journalists. Today, he said, the Post has about 60.
If Alden succeeds in grabbing majority control of Tribune, it will represent the latest step down in a long fall that began with its acquisition by the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate mogul Sam Zell in 2008. The Zell years were the subject of a monumental takedown by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2010, with Carr describing a culture that “came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” Oh, and they were pillaging the company, too.
Later, under new owners, the company was renamed tronc Inc. — and yes, that’s a lowercase “t” that you see.
In 2018, the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong managed to wrest the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune from tronc’s clutches. And though the Soon-Shiong era has not been without bumps in the road (including an ugly internal dispute over racial justice), his wealth has given his papers a future.
As for the papers now controlled or soon to be controlled by Alden Global Capital, the future is likely to be nasty and brutish, to take John Locke Thomas Hobbes out of context. Whether it will also be short remains to be seen.
The news from MediaNews Group (formerly known as Digital First Media) just gets worse and worse. Jim Clark writes that not only has he been laid off from his position as a sports copy editor at the Boston Herald, but that the Herald is “eliminating its copy desk positions.”
Meanwhile, Julie Reynolds, the go-to source for all things MediaNews, reports for The Intercept that the chain — owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital — is moving in the direction of outsourcing its page-design jobs overseas and covering high school sports with artificial intelligence.
“Now it’s outsourcing California news design to the Philippines, paying pennies on the dollar for work that once employed professionals who lived in the communities they served,” Reynolds writes.
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.
Digital First Media’s latest round of cuts at the Boston Herald was the talk of local media Twitter on Thursday. The most shocking was that photographer Mark Garfinkel, perhaps the paper’s best journalist, was among those told that his services were no longer needed.
Disclosure: Mark is a friend who has spoken to my students on several occasions. He worked as a stringer at the former Beverly Times (long since merged with The Salem News) near the start of his career — and the photo editor at that time was none other than Mrs. Media Nation.
Both Jack Sullivan at CommonWealth Magazine and Jon Chesto of The Boston Globe have weighed in on the cuts. Sullivan puts the body count at about 20; Chesto says 14. Chesto also reports that the Herald now employs about a total of 100 people, less than half the 240 who worked there before former owner Pat Purcell declared bankruptcy.
Some of the cuts don’t necessarily diminish the Herald’s journalism. The copy editing jobs, for instance, are being outsourced to a Digital First facility in Denver. (Not that we should expect distant copy editors to do as good a job as local people who know the area.) Overall, though, this is terrible news. Garfinkel was one of two photographers let go on Thursday. How can you have a viable tabloid without great photography?
Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine has the latest on cutbacks at the Boston Herald. Digital First Media, which bought the Herald earlier this year, is centralizing the paper’s advertising design and news layout operations at its headquarters in Boulder, Colorado.
It’s a rare instance of Digital First making cuts that don’t directly affect news coverage, and it’s become standard operating procedure at newspaper chains. For instance, GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, outsources much of its design work to a facility it owns in Austin, Texas. Still, it’s terrible for the people who are losing their jobs — estimated at 10 to 15 in news design alone.
Then again, there’s not much in the way of reporting resources at the Herald that Digital First can still cut. Sullivan writes writes that there are now fewer than a dozen reporters at the once-robust tabloid. Wow.
More details in this Twitter thread from Herald sports copy editor Jon Courture. Click here to read the whole thing.
Boston Herald employees were informed today that the paper's ad production and design will be outsourced later this year. Transitions will likely happen in August (for ads) and in mid-October (for design).
It was an unprecedented rebellion against the most notorious of the bottom-feeding newspaper chains. Over the weekend The Denver Post, gutted beyond recognition by Digital First Media, its hedge-fund-backed owner, published an editorial and a package of commentaries protesting endless rounds of cuts in the paper’s reporting staff. The editorial referred to the paper’s corporate overlords as “vulture capitalists” and said in part:
We call for action. Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden [Global Capital] — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely — at least not until Alden has squeezed every last penny out of the Post and the nationwide chain of newspapers it owns, ranging from The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register on the West Coast to, locally, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
As I’ve noted previously, Alden is controlled by an ultrawealthy financier named Randall Smith who, according to investigative reporting by Julie Reynolds in The Nation, plundered his newspapers in order to amass the $57 million he needed to purchase 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Digital First has also been accused of diverting hundreds of millions of dollars into investments managed by Alden, according to Reynolds.
The allegations against Digital First and Alden may be shocking, but they also underscore an important fact that casual observers often miss: there’s still plenty of money in newspapers, even though the business continues to shrink. Indeed, as the editorial in The Denver Post pointed out, Digital First was “solidly profitable” last year. Yet the Post’s newsroom has shrunk from more than 250 several years ago to fewer than 100 today — and will soon sink below 70.
Among those who contributed to the Post’s anti-Digital First package was Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe who worked as editor of the Post for 14 years, quitting two years ago rather than continuing to slash his reporting staff. “The Post cannot do its job starved of resources the way it is now,” Moore wrote. “Deep investigations can take months, running down news tips can take days, gathering and analyzing records can cost thousands of dollars, and getting the right photograph that tells a story better than words ever can takes patience. All of that is at stake with the relentless cutting taking place.”
Ironically (or perhaps not ironically), the Post on Friday published a preview of the baseball season in which it ran a six-column photo of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia instead Denver’s own Coors Field. Now, yes, it’s the sort of mistake that any 12-year-old baseball fan should have caught. But it’s also the sort of mistake that a demoralized, skeletal staff seemed almost destined to make. (The Post blamed it on a “production error.”)
So what can be done? Moore offered several suggestions: forming a public-private partnership, creating a foundation, or somehow persuading Digital First to spend a little more on journalism and a little less on Randall Smith’s mansions and speculative investments. The most promising of Moore’s ideas, though, is to find another buyer. If Smith and his hatchetman at Alden — Heath Freeman, likened to the fictional Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko in a recent Bloomberg View column by Joe Nocera — can be persuaded to sell now rather than wait for the last profits to trickle in, then perhaps journalism in Denver can be saved.
Just recently the Los Angeles Times, laid low by the corporate depredations of a chain known (seriously) as tronc, with a lowercase “t,” was purchased by a billionaire surgeon named Patrick Soon-Shiong. It’s too early to know what Soon-Shiong’s intentions are, but, if nothing else, he could give the Times a chance to grow again. Billionaire ownership has also benefited The Washington Post, which claims to be turning a profit under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and The Boston Globe, which is holding steady under financier and Red Sox principal owner John Henry.
Digital First’s initial reaction to the Denver uprising was more hands-off than one might have imagined. According to Sydney Ember of The New York Times, the company decided to let the commentary remain online and to go ahead with plans to include it in the Post’s print edition. The editorial-page editor, Chuck Plunkett, who conceived of the package, will remain on board.
But it remains to be seen whether what happened last weekend was the start of something big — or a futile gesture, quickly forgotten and not to be repeated as Digital First’s newspapers continue their long, not-so-slow slide to oblivion.
I am thrilled to join the Boston Herald team. I share the commitment to delivering quality news and information to our readers, advertisers and our communities. I look forward to getting to know the staff and evaluating how we best can meet the needs and expectations of those we serve. I’m committed to producing content that our readers want, in both print and digital, providing them with the best news experience possible. Quality readership will provide for advertising solutions that get results for our advertisers.
Now where we have heard that before? Oh, right. In 2013 Corrado was named president and publisher of Digital First’s New England Newspapers Inc. And here’s what he was quoted saying at the time:
I am thrilled to join the Digital First Media team and to lead the New England operation. I share the commitment of delivering quality news and information to our readers, our advertisers and our communities and I look forward to getting to know these communities more and learning how we can continue to meet the needs and expectations of those we serve.