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A hearing to revive a Mass. local news commission will be held this Wednesday

Photo (cc) 2024 by Dan Kennedy

Nearly three and a half years after then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill creating a local news commission, the Massachusetts legislature is ready to try again. The first commission lapsed without ever holding a formal meeting (one preliminary meeting was held before all the members had been appointed), so essentially we’re starting from scratch.

A public hearing will be held this Wednesday, June 26, at 10 a.m. to discuss the make-up of a journalism commission, the state of journalism in Massachusetts, and what the public would like to see a commission address. The hearing is being held by the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business, and will take place in Room B-1 at the Statehouse as well as virtually over Teams. I’ve signed up to testify.

The original legislation would have created a 23-member commission. The new proposal would strip that down to a more workable nine members. I would have been guaranteed a slot on the first commission; there are no guarantees in the new legislation, but I’ve told Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham, who’s the House chair of the committee, that I’d be willing to serve. I’ve also offered his office some thoughts on how the commission might be structured and what areas it could address.

The local news landscape here has deteriorated considerably since then-Rep. Lori Ehrlich and I first started talking about a commission in 2018. Especially destructive was Gannett’s decision to close or merge a couple dozen of its weekly papers in the spring of 2022 and to jettison nearly all of its local coverage in favor of regional stories from around the chain. (Ellen Clegg and I spoke with Ehrlich on our very first “What Works” podcast in October 2021. Ehrlich is now the regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

On the bright side, we’ve also seen an upsurge in local news startups in the Boston area, mainly nonprofit. These projects are doing a better job of covering local news than Gannett had in many years. But some communities are without any journalism, and the startups tend to be located in affluent suburbs.

What could a news commission do? That would be up to the members. But a commission could shine a light on independent projects that are doing well in order to inspire folks in other cities and towns to try their hand. And it could propose some policy measures aimed at bolstering local efforts. One that seems especially promising are tax credits for news publishers who hire and retain journalists, as is being done in Illinois and New York. “Tax credits” is a bit of misnomer since they can be structured to benefit nonprofits as well as for-profits that are losing money.

Here’s the full announcement about Wednesday’s hearing:

Please be advised that the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses will hold a hybrid public hearing on Wednesday, June 26th starting at 10am in Room B-1 to discuss the composition of the Journalism Commission, the current state of journalism in the Commonwealth and matters that interested parties would like to see the commission address once the commission is formed. Instructions for providing oral and written testimony are below.

Date of Hearing: Wednesday, June 26th, 2024
Time: 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Location: Room B-2 — Hybrid Hearing via Microsoft Teams
Subject Matter: Journalism

IN-PERSON AND VIRTUAL TESTIMONY: For both in-person and virtual testimony, you must fill out the following form:

WRITTEN TESTIMONY: Written testimony may be submitted to the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses by emailing the

DEADLINE TO PRE-REGISTER: For both in-person and virtual testimony, the deadline to register to testify is 12:00pm, Tuesday, June 25th, 2024. Individuals registered for virtual testimony will receive an email the day before the hearing with a link to join the hearing on Microsoft Teams.

SAME DAY SIGN-UP: Individuals who miss the deadline to pre-register for testimony may appear on the day of the hearing and sign up to speak in-person on forms provided by committee staff. Time permitting, when all pre-registered individuals have been called to testify, the Chairs will then call any individuals who sign up in-person on the day of the hearing.

ORDER OF TESTIMONY: The Chairs, at their discretion, will determine the order of testimony. It is the responsibility of the individuals registered to testify to be prepared to speak when called upon by the Chairs. If an individual is called by the Chairs and that person is not logged into the Teams platform, the Chairs will move on and call the next individual or panel. We respectfully request that all oral testimony be kept to 3 minutes or less.

If you have any questions or concerns please email

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Illinois nears enactment of tax credits and other measures to boost local news

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Photo (cc) 2018 by SecretName101.

The state of Illinois has taken a major step forward in trying to ease the local news crisis, with the legislature approving tax credits for publishers to hire and retain journalists; creating a 120-day cooling-off period to slow the sale of independent local news outlets to out-of-state chains; and funding scholarships for students who work at an Illinois news organization for at least two years after graduation.

Mark Caro reports for Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative that the tax credits amount to a modest $25 million over five years, but he quotes state Sen. Steve Stadelman as saying that the measure nevertheless represents a good start. “It was a tight budget year for Illinois, which always makes it difficult to pass legislation,” Stadelman, a Democrat, told Caro. “Was it as much as I wanted? No. But it showed that there’s a commitment by the state of Illinois to local journalism, and that’s significant.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the bill.

A couple of points I want to raise.

• The legislation grew out of the state’s Local Journalism Task Force, which was created by Gov. Pritzker in August 2021. Stadelman chaired that bipartisan group. Illinois was the second state to create a commission to study the local news crisis and make some recommendations. The first, you may recall, was Massachusetts; I had a hand in drafting the legislation that created it and would have been a member. But the Massachusetts commission, signed into law by then-Gov. Charlie Baker in January 2021, never got off the ground. There are some favorable rumblings coming out of Beacon Hill, though, and I hope to have better news to report at some point later this year.

• The Illinois tax credits avoid some pitfalls that developed almost immediately after New York State approved $90 million over three years. The New York credits are currently being implemented through an administrative process, and Gothamist reported recently that it’s not clear whether nonprofits and digital-only media outlets would be included, even though some prominent proponents understood that that they would be. The language is also contradictory as to whether out-of-state chains would be able to take advantage of the credits.

By contrast, the language of the Illinois legislation makes it clear that nonprofits and digital-only projects are included and that out-of-state chains are excluded.

The Illinois bill represents just part of a comprehensive package that was unveiled last February. As Caro reports, the Stadelman bill originally called for state agencies to spend half or more of their ad budget on local news outlets, but that provision was dropped.

In addition, a separate bill that would have required Google and Facebook to pay for the news that they repurpose has been put on hold depending on how things go with a similar measure in California. Forcing Big Tech to hand over some of their profits sounds appealing, but it hasn’t been working out very well elsewhere, as Facebook is getting rid of much of its news content and Google is threatening to walk away from the modest assistance it provides to journalism, such as the Google News Initiative.

Any form of government assistance for journalism has to be evaluated for whether it compromises the independence that news outlets need in order to hold public officials to account. Still, the modest action being taken in Illinois seems worth trying, at least on an experimental basis.

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Illinois seeks to bolster community journalism. Plus, a local news round-up.

The Illinois Statehouse. Photo (cc) 2023 by Warren LeMay.

Illinois lawmakers this week unveiled a massive package aimed at bolstering local news. According to Mark Caro of the Local News Initiative, based at Northwestern University in Chicago, the package comprises two separate bills:

The Journalism Preservation Act would require Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations for the content that they share, display or link to on their platforms. The Strengthening Community Media Act offers a broad array of incentives, tax breaks and scholarships intended to repopulate local newsrooms. Included in that bill is a provision that calls for 120 days’ written notice before a local news organization may be sold to an out-of-state company.

As I’ve said before, I’m less than enthusiastic about going after the tech platforms, which presupposes that they are somehow stealing journalistic content without paying for it. Facebook executives have made it clear that they can live quite nicely without news. With respect to Google, media outlets find themselves in the awkward situation of demanding compensation while at the same time depending on the search giant to drive traffic to their websites. Indeed, any one of them could insert a simple line of code in their sites that would make them invisible to Google. None of them does. I would like to see Google and Facebook do more for local news, and maybe it ought to be mandated. But this bill seems like too much of a blunt instrument, as does similar legislation being pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the federal level.

The second Illinois bill includes a number of different ideas. I particularly like the proposed requirement for a 120-day notification period. As Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, said recently on the podcast “E&P Reports,” a mandatory delay can give communities time to rally and prevent their local newspaper from falling into the hands of chain ownership.

Other provisions of the Strengthening Community Media Act would mandate that state agencies advertise with local news outlets, provide tax credits to publishers for hiring and retaining journalists, enact additional tax credits for small businesses that advertise with local outlets, and create scholarships for students who agree to work at a local Illinois news organization for two years or more.

It’s good to see action taking place at the state level given that several federal proposals in recent years have gone nowhere despite bipartisan support. It’s also notable that the proposals were drafted by Illinois’ Local Journalism Task Force, which was created in August 2021. Here in Massachusetts, legislation was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker way back in January 2021 to create a commission that would study local news. I had a hand in drafting that legislation and would be one of its members, but the commission has yet to get off the ground.

There are several other developments in local news that are worth taking note of.

• Gannett is making a $2 million investment in its Indianapolis Star aimed at bolstering the newsroom and the advertising sales staff. Two top Gannett executives recently appeared on “E&P Reports” about Gannett’s plans to reinvest in its properties. Unfortunately, Holly V. Hayes of the Indy Star writes, “This is the only site in the USA TODAY Network, which includes more than 200 local publications across the country, where such an investment is being made.” My hope is that if the investment leads to a boost in circulation and revenues, then it will serve as a model for what Gannett might do elsewhere.

• A new hyperlocal news project has made its debut in Boston. The Seaport Journal, a digital news outlet, covers the city’s newest neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Marblehead Beacon, one of three independent projects covering that town, has announced that it’s ending regular coverage but will continue to “pursue periodic and unique pieces, and shift away from daily, weekly, or otherwise regular articles.” A reminder: We track independent local news organizations in Massachusetts, and you can find a link to our list in the upper right corner of this website. Just look for “Mass. Indy News.”

• Local access cable television plays an important role in community journalism by carrying public meetings, providing a platform for residents to make their own media, and, in some cases, by covering the news directly. Unfortunately, cord-cutting has placed access television at risk since stations’ income is based on a fee assessed to cable providers for each subscriber. In CommonWealth Beacon, Caleb Tobin, a production technician at Holbrook Community Access and media and a junior at Stonehill College, argues in favor of Massachusetts legislation that would impose a 5% fee on streaming services. “While often viewed as a relic of the past,” Tobin writes, “the services that cable access stations provide are more important now than they’ve ever been.”

• Many thanks to Tara Henley, host of the Canadian podcast “Lean Out,” who interviewed Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” You can listen here.

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The latest Green Line Extension problems are an outrage

Green Line trolley at the new Tufts/Medford station. Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy.

It’s hard to describe how outrageous it is that the brand-new, $2.3 billion Green Line Extension was built with miles of tracks that are too close together. Bruce Mohl writes at CommonWealth:

At a confusing press conference on Thursday that raised almost as many questions as answers, MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng said it appears the prefabricated plated rail ties for the Green Line extension were made to incorrect specifications and then installed. A plated rail tie consists of a wooden tie with steel plates on either end for holding the rail in place.

Gov. Maura Healey blamed her predecessor, Charlie Baker, which is a pretty safe call — the GLX was built on his watch, so surely someone in his administration was responsible. The Boston Globe reports that Eng also said his underlings didn’t inform him of the problem in a timely manner. Let the firings begin.

One thought that occurs to me is that Baker canceled a more expensive version of the GLX approved by his predecessor, Deval Patrick. It would not surprise me if Baker let an unqualified contractor sweet-talk his administration into doing the job on the cheap.

I don’t usually take the GLX because the Medford/Tufts terminus is too far from my house and is s-l-o-w. Instead, I generally take the commuter rail to North Station and then the Orange Line. But the GLX can be valuable as a backup, and of course a lot of people depend on it. This is literally unbelievable, except that it’s the MBTA.

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Smart commentary from the Globe on the never-ending Fells Acres saga

Given the fraught emotions that still surround the Fells Acres day-care case nearly 40 years after three members of the Amirault family were convicted of child sexual abuse, I thought The Boston Globe’s editorial was smart and nuanced.

The convictions of Gerald Amirault, his late mother, Violet Amirault, and his sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, have never been overturned despite multiple appeals, and several of the survivors continue to speak out about what they say they suffered at the day-care center the Amiraults ran. Gov. Charlie Baker’s last-minute bid to pardon them was inexplicable, and he was forced to withdraw his request in the face of a certain defeat at the hands of the Governor’s Council. The Globe covers that with a three-byline story here; and if you’re looking for a free link, has a pretty comprehensive report as well.

The Globe editorial cuts right to the heart of the matter: although a pardon is not an exoneration, the Amiraults’ supporters would surely take it as one, and that would be inappropriate:

Opponents of a pardon had feared, quite reasonably, that because the Amiraults have always proclaimed their innocence, any pardon would have been viewed as an official acceptance of their version of events, in which they were loving caregivers who were simply caught up in a hysterical moral panic. By implicitly calling the victims liars, a pardon on those grounds could have deterred victims in other cases from coming forward — “casting a pall over other children who will not be believed,” as Laurence Hardoon, the lead prosecutor in the case, said on Tuesday.

Over on the op-ed page, columnist Joan Vennochi adds:

Baker did not speak with the victims, or to Hardoon, who believed the children then, and still does. With that failure to reach out, the governor underestimated the power of their testimony and what victims like Jennifer Bennett — who was 3½ when she attended the day care center and is now 44 — believe to be true. The skeptics “can believe what they want. I know the truth. I was there, not them,” Bennett said during a break in the hearing.

Nearly every observer agrees that the case would not be investigated today as it was in the 1980s. Under repeated questioning, the children’s stories became more lurid over time, which is not surprising given that they were trying to process what had happened to them when they were as young as 3 or 4 years old. But that doesn’t mean they were brainwashed, as Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal argued in a series of columns in the 1990s that served to reopen the case in the minds of the public. I wrote about Rabinowitz’s crusade in 1995 for The Boston Phoenix.

The Amiraults were in prison for a long time, and they’ve been free for a long time. We will never know with absolute certainty what happened at that day-care center, but they were not the victims of deranged prosecutors conducting a witch hunt. They received a fair trial in accordance with the best practices of that era. Enough.

Baker’s had seven years to fix the T. It’s worse than ever.

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

A Twitter thread on the decline and fall of the MBTA under Gov. Charlie Baker:

More than seven years ago, after Snowmaggedon brought the #MBTA to its knees, Gov. Baker was given unprecedented authority to fix it. We now know he didn’t use that opportunity wisely or well. (1/x)

If there was an assessment made of what work needed to be done, it was obviously inadequate. We’ve seen one issue after another come up during the past year, and especially the past few months. (2/x)

With proper planning, much of the work could have been done during the pandemic shutdown. Instead, we’re now dealing with Orange and Green Line closures just as employers are trying to entice their workers into returning to the office. (3/x)

It’s not all Baker’s fault. The last governor to take issues involving the T seriously was Michael Dukakis. There’s no political gain in fixing the T because the benefits are invisible. (4/x)

Baker does deserve credit for saving the GLX after Deval Patrick nearly gold-plated it into oblivion. Overall, though, Baker failed, and his term is ending with the T in a state of collapse. (5/x)

Notably silent: Maura Healey, who’s as sure a bet to be elected governor as you get in politics. This is not a time for caution. What is her vision for the T? If she remains silent, then she won’t have a mandate to carry it out. (6/x)

Like many, I depend on the MBTA to get to work and elsewhere. I use commuter rail, subways and buses. I really have no good alternatives, so I’m being patient. What choice do I have? But all of this is incredibly dispiriting. (7/7)

Healey’s ascension coincides with the dispiriting collapse of politics in Mass.

Maura Healey. Photo (cc) 2015 by Charlie Baker. Yes, that’s what the photo credit says. Yes, I realize that’s Baker on the left-hand side of the frame.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz’s withdrawal from the gubernatorial race on Thursday underscores the astonishing collapse of politics in Massachusetts. This is a state where politics has traditionally been a year-round sport. In the past, an open governor’s seat would have attracted multiple candidates. Instead, Attorney General Maura Healey will run uncontested for the Democratic nomination and will probably beat either of the two Republicans who are running.

The Axios Boston headline this morning puts it this way: “AG Healey on track to be Massachusetts’ first elected female governor.” In June. Nearly five months before Election Day.

Contrast what’s happening today with 1990, when Gov. Michael Dukakis retired. Three prominent Democrats sought the nomination — Boston University president John Silber, Attorney General Frank Bellotti and Lieutenant Gov. Evelyn Murphy. Although Murphy ended up withdrawing, Silber beat Bellotti in a closely fought race. Silber, in turn, was defeated by former federal prosecutor Bill Weld, who won the Republican nomination by beating House Republican leader Steve Pierce.

More recently, in 2006, a relatively unknown former Justice Department official, Deval Patrick, won the Democratic primary for governor with less than 50% of the vote against businessman Chris Gabrieli and Attorney General Tom Reilly. That November, Patrick defeated Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and several independent candidates, the most prominent of whom was the late businessman Christy Mihos.

So how did Healey end up running unopposed for the Democratic nomination? There are some unique factors at play. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker took his time in announcing he wouldn’t seek another term, which gave a significant advantage to the well-known, well-funded Healey. Former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh decided he’d rather stay in Washington than run for governor.

I worry, though, that we’re all losing interest in politics. Healey is first-rate, smart, personable and progressive. After her, though, who? U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley? Boston Mayor Michelle Wu? Maybe. Both are at a relatively early stage of their political careers — especially Wu — so perhaps we just have to give it time.

As for the Republicans, who have produced a slew of governors over the years to act as a moderating force against the dominant Democrats, the situation is sad indeed. Two Republicans are running for governor this year. One, state Rep. Geoff Diehl, is a full-blown Trumper. The other, businessman Chris Doughty, is trying to position himself as a Baker-style moderate — but he opposes abortion rights and has taken stands that suggest he supporters deeper tax cuts than Baker would support.

For those of us who’ve been following Massachusetts politics for years, it’s a dispiriting time. I hope it’s just temporary.

Mayor Wu takes a few cautious steps toward limiting neighborhood protests

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Photo by Lex Weaver / The Scope

Loud, angry protests outside the homes of elected officials have become a staple of the uncivil times in which we live. And Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is taking a few cautious steps toward doing something about it.

As my GBH News colleague Adam Reilly reports, Wu has filed an ordinance that would ban protests outside individual residences between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. — four fewer hours than the current law allows, which runs from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Under the new hours, Wu would have left for work before the anti-vaccine, anti-mask protesters could arrive outside her Roslindale home, where they have been harassing her family and her neighbors.

“We are putting reasonable parameters around the time of day,” Reilly quoted Wu as saying, “because this is where it really comes up against quality of life, and ensuring that we are supporting residents in our neighborhoods to be able to have the health and well-being of getting sleep at night and in the morning.”

I fully support the First Amendment right to protest, and this is a troublesome issue. It seems to me that the protesters ought to have the decency to picket at her public appearances rather than at her home, but decency has little to do with it. Loud, obnoxious protests outside Gov. Charlie Baker’s home in Swampscott may even have played a role in his decision not to seek re-election, though Baker himself has not said one way or the other if that’s the case.

As Adam notes, another, more draconian restriction is being considered on Beacon Hill. State Rep. Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican, has proposed that protesters be banned from doing there thing less than 100 yards from an elected official’s home.

Over the weekend, Baker told Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) that the 100-yard limit might be a good idea. “We have neighbors,” Baker said. “For our neighbors who never ran for office, never got elected to anything, this was a nightmare.” (And what’s up with The Boston Globe, which credited an interview that Wu gave to WBUR’s “Radio Boston” program but dismissively described Baker’s appearance on “Keller at Large” as “a television interview”?)

As I wrote recently, Mayor Wu has faced two First Amendment tests in her brief time in the corner office. Fortunately, she and her staff appeared to back off from “media guidelines” that were intended to keep the press at a distance as city workers cleared the homeless encampment at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

The protest issue, though, is a knottier one. I think she’s wise to take this in small steps. If the 9-to-9 ordinance helps, great. If not, then more drastic measures may be called for.

Protests outside elected officials’ homes will lead to actions none of us want

We don’t have official residences for elected leaders in Massachusetts, and that’s a good thing. I like it that Gov. Charlie Baker still lives in Swampscott, where he was once a selectman, and that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu lives in a two-family home in Roslindale with her husband, children and mother.

Sadly, the breakdown of civility in our society is making it untenable. Bullhorn-wielding anti-vaxxers have been protesting outside Wu’s house, and they’re becoming increasingly hateful. Have a look at what Wu tweeted this morning:

It’s happened to Baker, too. Last September, climate-change protesters were arrested after they chained themselves to a pink boat labeled “Climate Emergency” that they had brought with them.

Even if you believe there’s nothing wrong with verbally abusing elected officials outside their homes, it’s certainly not something their neighbors signed up for.

This is going to lead to actions that none of us want. Heavy security is just a start. The Legislature is considering a bill that would outlaw protests within 100 yards of an elected official’s home. That’s almost certainly unconstitutional, as it would ban legally protected speech on public streets and sidewalks.

Or we could see a move toward official residences that are not in residential areas. The city of Boston already owns the Parkman House, near the Statehouse. If I’m remembering correctly, Mayor Kevin White lived there for at least part of his time in office.

The best solution would be for protesters to decide that elected officials’ homes are off limits. I doubt that’s going to happen, though. And so, inevitably, politicians are going to decide they have to remove themselves from normal life even more than they already are. That’s not good for them, or for us.

The Massachusetts GOP is becoming more extreme and authoritarian

This post was first published last Friday as part of the Media Nation member newsletter. In order to become a member for $5 a month, please click here.

As the Massachusetts Republican Party becomes more extreme, it’s moving further and further toward authoritarianism in order to intimidate those with whom its leaders disagree.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed beyond the pale when a member of the state committee, Deborah Martell, wrote emails in which she said she was “sickened” that a gay Republican candidate for Congress, Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, had adopted children along with his husband.

Since then, the party has targeted a Drag Queen Story Hour at the Plymouth Public Library under the caption “Is this really the new normal?,” republishing the library’s phone number on its public Facebook page just in case anyone wants to, you know, express their constitutionally protected views. And last week the party revealed the shocking (!) information that Emma Platoff, a recently hired Boston Globe reporter who’s been covering the party’s meltdown, is a registered Democrat.

“The Boston Globe’s nonstop negative portrayal of Massachusetts Republicans sure makes sense now,” wrote party chair Jim Lyons in an email to members. “Today I learned that the reporter assigned to cover us is a registered Democrat. Journalists, registered as members of the Democratic Party, working in news media, covering Massachusetts Republicans. Well, knock me over with a feather.”

For more details, I refer you to this Twitter thread by Ed Lyons, a political activist from the moderate wing of the Republican Party. As Lyons shows, the GOP makes it appear that finding out Platoff’s party affiliation was as easy as plugging her name into an online form in Connecticut, where she used to live. In fact, you also have to enter someone’s date of birth and town or city of residence, raising the possibility that confidential information was used improperly in order to discover that she’s a Democrat.

Now, a few words about a reporter declaring a party affiliation. It’s no big deal. Ethical codes would forbid a journalist from serving as an active member of a political party by, say, serving on a city or town committee. We can’t make political donations, put political signs on our yards, or take part in any other partisan political activity. But a party affiliation is meaningless. We can declare ourselves as Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, whatever. We can vote, although some journalists choose not to.

Up until 2000, I was a registered Democrat. I switched my party affiliation to “unenrolled” that spring so I could take a Republican ballot in the presidential primary. I decided I liked it and never switched back. But it made no difference in how I reported on politics.

It appears that Lyons and company are attempting to intimidate Platoff, just as they were attempting to intimidate librarians in Plymouth. The goal is to divert attention from their descent into Trumpism.

From time to time I tweet a humorous (but serious) message that it’s time for Gov. Charlie Baker to leave the Republican Party. To his credit, he’s been critical of the Lyons wing. But he needs to say and do more.

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