Linking reconsidered

Photo (cc) 2013 by liebeslakritze

Although I started blogging in 2002, the first regular column that I ever wrote for a digital publication was for The Guardian. From 2007 until 2011, I produced a weekly commentary about media, politics and culture that was not much different from what I write now for GBH News. What was new was that, for the first time, I could embed links in my column, just as if I was blogging. I did — liberally. (Only later did my editor tell me that the software he used stripped out all the links I had put in, which meant that he had to restore them all by hand. And this was at one of the most digitally focused newspapers on the planet.)

Links have become a standard part of digital journalism. So I was surprised recently when Ed Lyons, a local political commentator who’s an old-fashioned moderate Republican, posted a Twitter thread denouncing links. It began: “I hereby declare I am *done* with hyperlinks in political writing. Pull up a chair and let me rant about how we got to this ridiculous place. What started off as citation has unintentionally turned into some sort of pundit performance art.”

The whole thread is worth reading. And it got me thinking about the value of linking. Back when everything was in print, you couldn’t link, of course, so opinion columns — constrained by space limitations — tended to include a lot of unattributed facts. The idea was that you didn’t need to credit commonly known background material, such as “North Dakota is north of South Dakota.” Sometimes, though, it was hard to know what was background and what wasn’t, and you didn’t want to do anything that might be perceived as unethical. When linking came along, you could attribute everything just by linking to it. And many of us did.

In his thread, Lyons also wrote that “it is my opinion that nobody visits any of these links. I think readers see the link and say oh well that must be true.” I agree. In fact, I tell my students that no one clicks on links, which means that they should always write clearly and include all the information they want the reader to know. The link should be used as a supplement, not as a substitute. To the extent possible, they should also give full credit to the publication and the writer when they’re quoting something as well as providing a link.

I agree with Lyons that links ought to add value and not just be put in gratuitously. And they certainly shouldn’t be snuck in as a way of whispering something that you wouldn’t want to say out loud. The classic example of that would be a notorious column a couple of years ago by Bret Stephens of The New York Times, who wrote that the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically superior — and backed it up with a link to a study co-authored by a so-called scientist who had been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist and a eugenicist. Stephens’ assertion was bad enough; his citation was worse, even if few people read it.

One of the most successful self-published writers currently is the historian Heather Cox Richardson. I’ve noticed that she leaves links out of her Substack essays entirely, posting them at the bottom instead. Here’s an example. I’m not going to do that, but it seems to be a decent compromise — showing her work while not letting a bunch of links clutter up her text.

In any event, I don’t expect you to follow the links I include in my writing. They’re there if you want to know more, or if you want to see if I’m fairly characterizing what I’m describing. At the very least, Lyons has reminded me of the value of including links only when they really matter.

This essay was part of last week’s Media Nation Member Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.

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.

So two Republicans and I sat down in a bar …

… And you can listen to the results on SoundCloud. Thank you to Jeff Semon and Ed Lyons for inviting me onto “The Lincoln Review.” We talked for more than an hour about media and politics. But it was OK, because we were all drinking. You can subscribe to their podcast on iTunes. I understand that video will be up in a few days as well. God help us.

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