Amid COVID-19 and a failing MBTA, more and more people turn to biking

The rise of Bluebikes has helped fuel an increase in the number of people traveling on two wheels in the Boston area. Photo by Henry Shifrin.

My wonderful Northeastern intermediate reporting students have produced a terrific story on urban biking for The Scope, our School of Journalism’s digital publication covering issues related to social justice.

Here’s how we did it. Eleven of the 14 students interviewed experts, policymakers and ordinary cyclists, combining all of their notes onto one Google Doc. One student took photos. Two contributed research. Each of them wrote a story based on everyone’s notes. Finally, I pulled together an article from several of their stories.

I am pleased with the results and incredibly proud of my students. You can read their story right here.

Boston Globe employees told to return to the office starting next Tuesday

Like many organizations not dependent on face-to-face contact with the public, The Boston Globe has delayed bringing its employees back to the office. Several attempts have been made in the past, only to be set aside in response to a new COVID-19 surge.

Those days now appear to be over. Starting Tuesday, Sept. 20, non-production employees have been told to report for in-person work. Most employees, including journalists, will be expected to come in Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with the option of working at home on Mondays and Fridays. This three-day schedule seems to be the new norm. It also coincides with the restoration of Orange Line service.

Here’s part of a memo sent to employees by Rodrigo Tajona, the Globe’s chief people officer:

I hope this note finds you safe and well. First of all, I would like to appreciate and recognize everything that each one of you has been doing for the company, before, during and post COVID. We understand that it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve managed to navigate through these unprecedented times by working together. This is a tremendous credit to each one of you and we are grateful in acknowledging these efforts.

During this time, when most of our non-production employees have been working from home, there’s no doubt that we have been executing positively towards achieving our goals as a company. However, there is also a clear sense that something is missing. We have welcomed over 200 new members of our community since the offices closed, and they haven’t had many opportunities to get to know their colleagues. There are follow-up conversations that don’t happen when a zoom window closes. The brainstorming and creative thinking that we need to continue to innovate as a modern media company is hindered by not being in the same room. The ability to learn from the expertise of our colleagues and to mentor newer colleagues is limited. And we have a civic duty to be part of the city that we cover. In the pages of the Globe, we have reported on the impact of closed offices on Boston. It is great to see that so many offices have returned, and our building at Exchange Place is bustling again.

We have had all of our BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners] locations open for a while, and we have been happy to hear about the productive meetings and collaborations taking place in our beautiful offices.  As we have communicated in Town Halls and in company memos, we are ready and thrilled to have employees return to the office on a regular schedule effective September 20th 2022.

The following guidelines have been taken into consideration, understanding that life happens and flexibility is important to each one of us:

  • Although the offices will be open every day, we expect employees and managers to follow a 3/2 hybrid schedule; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, to be at the office. Mondays and Fridays are flexible for location. This gives us the benefit of having people in the office at the same time to get the most out of in-person time. Employees will be expected to work from the office typical office hours for their role, or in some exceptions as agreed upon with their individual managers (such schedule to be approved at the manager’s discretion).
  • We expect employees and managers to schedule meetings for employees to attend in-person at the office, versus having an employee at the office, attending a virtual meeting.
  • Individual requests to work remotely will be managed by department heads. Requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the nature of the job, department needs, and in accordance with collective bargaining agreements, where relevant….

While we have done our best to anticipate how best to help you with your return to work, we count on your unique experience to help us help other employees too. We’re very excited to receive your feedback, and to seek how to move forward together in the best possible way.

Please connect with your manager or HR, if you have any questions or comments.

Welcome back! I am excited to see you.

After two years of COVID, we are older, sadder and wiser

Photo (cc) 2020 by actor812

Previously published at GBH News.

COVID-19 has been the central reality of our lives for two years now. But the moment it became real is different for each of us.

For me, it was Wednesday, March 11, 2020. That was the day when Northeastern University, where I teach, announced it was shutting down; when fans were sent home in the midst of an NBA game after a player tested positive; and when then-President Donald Trump delivered a rambling, unnerving address that sent the Dow Jones futures tumbling.

So yes, that’s when we all began to take COVID-19 seriously. But we really had no idea of what was to come. I remember telling my students that I hoped we’d be back in person in a few weeks. Now here we are, two years later, and schools, workplaces, stores and the like are still not fully back to normal, though the situation is certainly far better than it once was.

The arc of our progression from hopefulness to humility can be traced in how Trump and President Joe Biden have spoken about the pandemic. Trump virtually never said an honest word when discussing COVID, telling us over and over during the final months of his presidency that it was no big deal.

Still, a statement he made on Feb. 27, 2020, stands out for its audacious mendacity. “It’s going to disappear,” he said. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”

Well, the miracle failed to materialize. By Election Day, nearly 233,000 Americans had died of COVID-19, and we still had nothing to protect ourselves except masks and social distancing.

If Trump’s optimism in the early days of the pandemic proved illusory, there were reasons to be hopeful a year later. Effective vaccines began coming online, and tens of millions of Americans rushed to get the shots. By the Fourth of July, President Joe Biden was cautiously hailing the return to something like normal.

“Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 has not been vanquished,” he said. “We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the delta variant, but the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.” He added: “So, today, while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation. And it’s within our power to make sure it never does again.”

We all know what happened next. Delta proved to be far more contagious than the earlier forms of COVID-19. Combined with the maddening, inexplicable refusal among many Americans — disproportionately Trump supporters — to get vaccinated or even wear masks, we experienced a horrifying fall infection rate surge. And then it started to abate.

Until it didn’t.

We were riding home from a Thanksgiving visit with family when I saw a story on my phone about yet another COVID-19 variant, this one out of South Africa. Dubbed omicron, the variant proved to be wildly more contagious than delta, although it seemed to have welcome characteristics as well, such as causing milder illness. Still, omicron ripped through the population, even striking those who had been “triple-vaxxed,” though the rate of severe illness and death among that group was blessedly low.

So here we are again. Two years into the pandemic, we are older, sadder and wiser. The omicron surge has faded as rapidly as it began. But, as I write, some 959,000 Americans have now died of COVID, and the virus seems likely to be with us for years to come. A year ago, we might have exhaled in delight at the prospect of vaccinating our way out of all this. Now we’re just holding our breath.

“We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard,” Biden said cautiously in his State of the Union address last week. He added: “I cannot promise a new variant won’t come. But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does.”

That’s a long way from saying, as Trump did, that COVID-19 will miraculously “disappear.” It’s also a dialing back of the optimism Biden expressed last summer. But it’s realistic.

Unfortunately, the ongoing stresses caused by COVID-19 come amid other disorienting events. The economy is growing rapidly, but inflation is eating up wage gains. Political strife continues, with a sizable portion of the electorate claiming to believe Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The planet is still warming.

Looming over all of this is the terrible war being waged by Russia against Ukraine. We feel helpless as increasingly horrific images are beamed onto our televisions and digital devices.

Existence feels fragile. Looking back, it seems as though COVID-19 ushered in a new age of uncertainty. I hope we get through this together.

Trump’s semi-departure fuels decline in news consumption

Photo (cc) by Seth Anderson

It was obvious to just about everyone that the media were going to face a challenging year after losing the artificial stimulant provided by the Trump presidency. “Will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?” I asked last January.

The answer: Yes, indeed.

David Bauder of The Associated Press has pulled together the numbers. The situation is especially grim on cable news, where weekday prime-time viewership was down 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News and 25% at MSNBC. (Fox still has by far the largest audience of the three.)

I’m not shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise. Cable news is bad for you. The formula at all three consists of keeping you riled up and angry so that you don’t change the channel. Fox adds weaponized right-wing propaganda about COVID, the Jan. 6 insurrection, critical race theory and more. So please, touch that dial.

Then again, everything’s down, not just cable news. Viewership of the three network evening newscasts — higher quality than their cable brethren — declined 12% to 14%. Unique monthly visitors to the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post dropped — although paid digital subscriptions to the Times are up, and that’s the metric that really matters. The Post, on the other hand, reportedly dropped from about 3 million to 2.7 million digital subscriptions toward the end of the year.

None of these numbers is inherently bad. We were glued to the news to an unhealthy extent during Trump’s presidency, as we all wondered what demented action he was going to take next. Then, in 2020, we had COVID to deal with as well.

There is still plenty of news taking place. COVID remains with us, the Republican Party has gone full-bore authoritarian and Trump has never really gone away. But things are a bit calmer, if not necessarily calm.

With national news commanding fewer eyeballs, will some of that attention be diverted to local journalism? I’d like to hope so. But with hedge funds and corporate chains hollowing out hundreds of community newspapers, in a lot of places there just isn’t enough to command attention.

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A photo exhibit documents New Haven during the COVID shutdown

Photos by Dan Kennedy

I first heard about Roderick Topping’s Instagram photos of New Haven during the COVID shutdown (you’ll find him at @robobtop) from an interview he did with Babz Rawls Ivy on WNHH-LP. Topping shot a series of gloomy, moody pictures showing mostly abandoned cityscapes in an attempt to capture a historical moment that we all experienced, and that we still haven’t put entirely behind us.

Thirty-six of Topping’s photos are now on display at the New Haven Museum in an exhibit titled “Strange Times.” I had a chance to visit recently, viewing COVID photographs under COVID protocols — visitors are required to register ahead of time and masks must be worn throughout the building.

In the introductory text, Topping explains what he’s up to:

For the past year and half I’ve been walking the streets documenting this new reality in New Haven. These photographs focus on the structures, outlines, and topography that serve as the background to our daily lives. Many of the photos here are black and white, much how I think I’ll remember these days: bleak, lonely, and surreal.

There are some evocative images here. I particularly like one from January of this year, just before vaccines became widely available. A man sits alone on a park bench, at night, on New Haven Green. His back is to the camera. Center Church is directly in front of him. The story told by that photo is that human interaction was missing even when we were able to get outside.

Yet there are some odd choices here as well. For instance, Topping shows us a man standing alone at a bus stop during the daytime on Chapel Street. In viewing it, you start telling yourself that the scene would normally be crowded with people. Then you look at the date: Feb. 14, 2020, a moment when COVID was still just a rumor. So what exactly is Topping trying to convey?

There are also some photos taken as the city was opening up again, such as a group of diners sitting outdoors at a restaurant on Crown Street during July of this year.

You can see some of Topping’s photos in a story that the New Haven Independent published about the exhibit.

Overall, “Strange Times” provides an illuminating look at downtown New Haven. Even if not every image fits in perfectly with the pandemic theme, the exhibit is worth your attention if you happen to find yourself in the New Haven area. And save some time for the rest of the museum as well.

“Strange Times” will be on display at the New Haven Museum through March 25. Click here for more information.

The Times publishes two front-page stories on anti-vaxxers. Why?

Any reason The New York Times had to publish not one but two lengthy stories today on heartlanders who refuse to get vaccinated? One is from Ohio, the other from Oklahoma. If the Times has ever devoted a story of similar length and prominence to people who feel trapped in their homes because they’re surrounded by unvaxxed COVID carriers, well, I don’t remember it.

From COVID to our crisis of democracy, 2021 turned out to be a scant improvement over 2020

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

Previously published at GBH News.

Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?

Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.

During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.

The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.

Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.

How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.

The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.

How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.

Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.

Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.

COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.

How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.

A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.

Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.

Questions remain after the fall of the House of Cuomo

I’ve heard three questions come up since CNN suspended, then fired, Chris Cuomo for his inappropriate involvement in his brother Andrew’s defense against charges that he’d sexually harassed and assaulted women. I don’t know the answers to any of them. But they’re worth framing as we think about the extraordinary events of the past week.

1. Why did it take so long for CNN to act? The original bad actor in all of this was CNN head Jeff Zucker, who allowed Chris to host Andrew on his show when Andrew, as governor of New York, was winning widespread praise for how he had handled the early stages of the COVID pandemic.

It may have struck many people at the time as a harmless diversion during a very dark period. You may recall that Chris himself contracted the virus. But it was unethical, and in the months to come we learned just how unethical. Remember, Andrew ended up being accused not just of groping women but of grossly mismanaging the pandemic as well.

Then the drip, drip, drip started, as we learned that Chris had advised his brother and taken part in meetings as the sexual-misconduct scandal became increasingly serious. Zucker may have worried that suspending or firing one of his stars would have only called attention to his own role, so he let it go.

The revelations that were reported last week, though, weren’t just more but were also different. They showed that Chris had abused his position by, for instance, trying to find out what stories other journalists were working on. This went way beyond anything Zucker could have reasonably foreseen, and thus may have given him the freedom he needed to do what he should have done earlier.

No doubt Zucker’s hand was strengthened further when Chris Cuomo was hit during the past few days with a sexual misconduct allegation of his own — his second.

2. What about Sean Hannity? I’ve heard a number of people ask why Chris Cuomo has to go when Fox News did nothing about Hannity’s close relationship with Donald Trump. To which I can only respond that Fox, notwithstanding good work by a few of its journalists, is not really a news operation. It’s a propaganda outlet whose stock in trade is lies and ginned-up culture-war stories about issues such as race and the evils of vaccinations.

CNN is not what it used to be, and I’m not a fan of its prime-time line-up of opinionated talk shows. But it’s good to see that management still cares enough about the network’s reputation that it’s not going to stand for a host who breaks all journalistic boundaries — even if he didn’t do much journalism on the air. To imagine that Fox News would take similar action is to believe that Fox and CNN are in the same business. They’re not.

And wouldn’t it be great if CNN ultimately decides to replace Cuomo’s 9 p.m. talk show with an actual newscast? I’m not holding my breath.

3. What about Jeffrey Toobin? You may recall that CNN suspended Toobin as its legal analyst after he was caught pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting. Many observers were surprised when the network took him back eight months later.

I’m not sure what that was about except to note that the incident took place during a New Yorker staff meeting, where Toobin was a writer. The New Yorker fired Toobin and shows no signs of being willing to take him back. CNN may have figured that it would be unfair to banish Toobin permanently for something he did for another employer. Still, it’s hard to watch Toobin without going “ewww.” And I say that as someone who liked his work both at The New Yorker and on CNN.

Finally: What an extraordinary downfall for the House of Cuomo. I revered their father, Mario; long before 2020, though, I was aware of Andrew’s thuggish reputation as governor. Chris struck me as an amiable lightweight. Scandals like this have a human dimension that can’t be overlooked. Andrew and Chris got what they deserved — but I feel bad for their mother, Matilda, who, at 90, is still very much with us.

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‘Storm Lake’ from PBS tells the story of a rural newspaper fighting for its life

Dolores Cullen, photographer and feature writer, holds up a copy of The Storm Lake Times

Previously published at GBH News.

Dolores Cullen is scanning through photos she’d taken at a local elementary school where Abby Bean, the reigning Iowa Pork Producers Pork Queen, had enthused over the finer points of hog production. The kids were encouraged to oink. There was a piglet wearing a diaper. It was the sort of event that oozes cute.

But that’s not what was on Cullen’s mind. While driving through Albert City, she was hit with an odor so foul that she couldn’t stop talking about it. “It was so putrid I almost gagged, from hog confinement,” she says. When she commented on the smell during a visit to the post office to deliver newspapers, she was told it was from corn that had been put out to dry.

“No,” she says she responded. “This is not the smell of drying corn. This is hog shit.”

Welcome to The Storm Lake Times, a 21-year-old twice-weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 3,000 that covers Buena Vista County, Iowa. The paper is the subject of a documentary, “Storm Lake,” that will be broadcast on most PBS stations this coming Monday, Nov. 15, at 10 p.m., including GBH-2 in Boston.

The film, by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, tells the story of a small rural newspaper’s fight for survival at a time when local papers across the country are cutting back and shutting down. At the center of that story are the Cullens, a remarkable family who persevere through calamities such as the rise of agribusiness, which wiped out much of the local advertising that had once sustained the paper; the spreading tentacles of the internet, which grabbed another big chunk; and, finally, the insidious invasion of COVID-19.

The Times was already among our better-known rural newspapers by virtue of a Pulitzer Prize that it won in 2017 for a series of editorials written by Art Cullen, the editor. As the Pulitzer judges put it, the paper “successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Cullen’s editorials so enraged those interests that the Iowa Senate refused to approve a resolution of congratulations, a tidbit that did not make it into the film.

Cullen later wrote a book about his life as a small-town newspaperman, but his notoriety appears not to have been of much help to the Times’ bottom line. Indeed, “Storm Lake” is a story of struggle. At one point the publisher, Art’s older brother, John, explains how he spent months listening to readers in order to pare the television listings down from 80 channels to 31 without sparking too much outrage, thus saving about $10,000.

Art Cullen is the narrative center of the film. Rail thin, with a shock of unkempt white hair (less unkempt after he submitted to a haircut administered by Dolores, his wife), a bushy horseshoe mustache and wire-rimmed glasses, we see him interviewing a range of characters, from a farmer talking about how a surplus of rain has stunted the corn crop to then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on stage in front of hundreds during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. We’re treated to several samples of his lyrical writing as well.

The caucuses provide a welcome break from the monotony of rural life. Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg drops by, and he’s not allowed to leave until he’s autographed an enormous “Storm Lake Times” sign that adorns the newsroom. Art takes part in an MSNBC panel moderated by Chuck Todd. Art and his son, Tom, report from the scene on caucus night, their disappointment palpable as it becomes clear that problems with the app used to tally the results mean that there would be no results for quite some. The Times’ headline: “Who Won the Caucuses? Not Iowa.”

Tom, Art and John Cullen

“Everybody thinks this is going to kill the Iowa caucuses,” Art says. “It shouldn’t, but it will.” A short time later he adds: “It’s not the process that broke down. It’s the app. It’s kind of too bad that we just can’t be more patient with democracy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic followed the caucuses by just a few weeks, and it nearly put the Times out of business. Advertising was down 50% in March 2020. Art and John muse about walking away rather than piling up more debt, or selling the Times’ building.

But they prevailed. We learn at the end that the paper held a successful GoFundMe campaign, signed up more than 100 new subscribers and unveiled a redesigned website that was attracting 1.2 million page views per month. The paper would survive.

Risius and Levison have provided a fascinating close-up look at the local news crisis, which has claimed some 2,100 U.S. newspapers over the past 15 years. At a moment when corporate chains control thousands of papers, squeezing out profits while cutting back on news coverage, the Cullens stand out as notable — and noble — exceptions.

“The pay is lousy and the hours are terrible,” says Art. “But you can change the world through journalism.”

The ugly truth about Eric Clapton — and the line between the art and the artist

Eric Clapton. Photo (cc) 2009 by Andrea Young.

Eric Clapton was one of my first musical heroes. As an aspiring blues guitarist of soaring ambitions and slight talent, I played his greatest album — Derek and Dominos’ “Layla” (No. 6 on my all-time list, by the way) — over and over again, trying to figure out what he was doing on songs like “Key to the Highway” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.” I saw him at the Boston Garden in 1974, one of my first rock concerts. A full-page ad for that show from one of the alt-weeklies (probably The Real Paper) was on my bedroom wall. Clapton was and is a great guitarist, and by all appearances seemed to be a humble, generous ambassador for the Black music that he championed.

But appearances can be deceiving. Throughout this year, bits and pieces of Clapton’s dark side have been emerging. He came out as an anti-vaxxer along with Van Morrison (at least we already knew he was a jerk). Old racist comments surfaced, along with his cringe-inducing I-apologize-but-not-really reactions.

Now Rolling Stone has pulled it all together (sub. req.) and added some details. A 5,000-word-plus story by David Browne reports on Clapton’s racist outbursts, focusing especially on a drunken rant he delivered at a Birmingham concert in 1976 during which he offered up some vile racial slurs and spoke favorably of a British politician named Enoch Powell, described in the article as the George Wallace of the U.K. Over the years Clapton has repeatedly apologized and blamed it on the booze; he has also repeatedly said it was no big deal and that he continues to think it was “funny.”

His current anti-vax crusade extends to sending money to a down-on-their-luck anti-vax band and playing shows in the U.S. before maskless audiences in the Deep Red South. As Browne writes:

For the longest time, anyone asked to rattle off Clapton’s accomplishments would cite the vital role he played in bringing blues and reggae into mainstream culture and his prodigious guitar playing. (There was a reason someone spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on a London subway wall in the mid-Sixties.) Others couldn’t help but remember the horrific tragedy of his four-year-old son’s death and the emotional catharsis of “Tears in Heaven.” But the current controversy is prompting a fresh examination of Clapton’s past behavior, which includes jarringly racist statements he made in the early part of his career. How did we get from admiration and empathy to bewilderment and even a feeling of betrayal?

Although it wasn’t in the Rolling Stone article, Twitter reminded me this week that Clapton admitted to raping his wife in the 1970s, back when he had serious alcohol and heroin addictions. That’s not an excuse — it’s just evidence of how low he had sunk.

Here we get to the age-old dilemma about separating the art from the artist. Clapton is a great artist. He’s also a racist anti-vaxxer who’s also admitted to sexual assault. That said, John Lennon, Miles Davis and any number of other great musicians could be pretty terrible people as well. Do we still want to listen to Clapton’s music? Is it possible to do so without thinking about Clapton the person?

Clapton has had an odd career, as he’s remained at least somewhat in the spotlight even though his last good album, “461 Ocean Boulevard,” was released nearly 50 years ago. He’s done it on the strength of a few hit singles here and there, especially the aforementioned “Tears in Heaven”; an overpraised blues album, 1994’s “From the Cradle,” that’s derivative and flat compared to “Layla”; and his live performances, which have included multiple televised benefit concerts on which his guitar wizardry has stolen the show.

Now, at 76, wealthy and successful, he’s tearing down his legacy. Maybe we can let Buddy Guy remind Clapton of how lucky he’s been. “The man can play,” he told Rolling Stone. “If somebody’s good, I don’t call you big, fat, or tall. He just bent those strings, and I guess he bent them right on time. The British exploded the blues and put it in places we didn’t put it. I wish I could have had the popularity he got. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so damn hard.”

More: Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes a look at Rolling Stone under new editor Noah Shachtman and what the Clapton story says about his plans to toughen up the magazine’s coverage.

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