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The Globe portrays GBH News as an operation beset by turmoil and toxicity

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Early this morning, The Boston Globe published an in-depth story documenting turmoil at GBH News, the local operation at the public media giant that encompasses television, radio and digital. The article, by Mark Shanahan, largely focuses on what some (but not all) employees describe as a toxic workplace culture and hostility toward “old white men.”

The leaders who come under criticism in Shanahan’s reporting are general manager Pam Johnston and executive editor Lee Hill, both of whom apologized to the staff after an internal investigation found, as Shanahan writes, that “senior managers made inappropriate comments about employees’ race, age, and gender by referring to ‘old white men’ when discussing newsroom diversity.” (Johnston turned down Shanahan’s request for an interview, but Ellen Clegg and I hosted her on our “What Works” podcast back in March 2022.)

The two most outspoken voices in the story belong to Jim Braude, co-host of GBH Radio’s “Boston Public Radio,” and Callie Crossley, host of “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley” and cohost of “The Culture Show,” both of which are radio programs.

“People fear for their jobs,” Braude, who’s white, told the Globe, adding: “People testified about mistreatment. Much of it was confirmed. No one was held responsible. Now people have to report to the same person they testified against and pray their supervisor doesn’t know they did.”

Crossley, who’s Black, has a very different view. “Bias, bullying, and intimidation cannot be tolerated, that’s absolutely correct,” she’s quoted as saying. “But I want to be clear: That. Did. Not. Happen. Here.” She also offers some context, saying, “People assume there’s a higher level of civility at public media stations, but I want to correct that. People may assume that based on ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ but newsrooms in public radio are exactly the same as they are anyplace else.”

There’s much more to the story, including angst over falling ratings, some good news on the digital side, and quotes from GBH’s newish chief executive, Susan Goldberg, that everyone is “moving on.” If you care about GBH and public media in general, I urge you to read it.

Beyond that, I really can’t say much. If you’re reading this, you probably know that I was part of GBH News for many years, mainly as a panelist on “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” throughout its entire run, from 1998 to 2021, but also as a weekly columnist for the website (a stint I ended in 2022) and an occasional guest on radio. I’m also friends with a number of current and former GBH folks.

Shanahan appears to have done an excellent job of bringing GBH’s internal problems into the open, where they belong (remember, this is public media), and I wish the station well in moving beyond this.

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‘The Big Dig,’ from GBH News, is a triumph of long-form audio journalism

The yellow is the path of what would become the Tip O’Neill Tunnel through the city. The red and blue are the Ted Williams Tunnel to Logan Airport. Photo (cc) from the 1990s by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Over the past few months, news organizations in Boston have unveiled massive projects that dig deeply into traumatic (for very different reasons) historical events — The Boston Globe’s series on the 1989 murder of Carol Stuart at the hands of her husband, Charles, whose claim that the killing was carried out by a Black man turned the city upside-down; and GBH News’ nine-part podcast on the Big Dig.

I approached both projects with some trepidation, wondering what more I could learn about such well-known events. Well, the Globe’s series and podcast were incredibly well done, and we did learn a few things we didn’t previously know; I did not see the Stuart documentary film made in conjunction with the series, but I understand it’s essentially a shortened version of the podcast. “The Big Dig” (that is, the podcast, not the tunnels) was outstanding as well. I just finished listening to it a couple of days ago.

Once I started “The Big Dig,” I got hooked because of the premise. We live at a time when it seems that we’re unable to build great public projects. They come in way over budget, they’re flawed and NIMBYs are able to keep them tied up for years. The way host and co-producer Ian Coss frames the podcast is that the Big Dig is among the earliest and most expensive examples of that phenomenon. As we all know, it cost far more than initial projections, it was years late, it was fatally flawed (literally) and opponents were able to tie it up in red tape.

It’s a dilemma that Ezra Klein of The New York Times has talked about a lot on his own podcast. Rather than liberalism that fetishizes process and empowers stakeholders (and non-stakeholders) in such a way that it makes it too easy to stop progress, he argues, we need a “liberalism that builds.” That will also be the topic of his next book, co-authored with Derek Thompson.

“The Big Dig” begins with an unusually righteous example of process liberalism — the fight to stop the Southwest Corridor, led by a bright young bureaucrat named Fred Salvucci and eventually embraced by Gov. Frank Sargent. Salvucci, whose voice holds together the podcast throughout all nine episodes (he’s now 83), rose to become secretary of transportation under Gov. Michael Dukakis and embraced the two projects that eventually became known as the Big Dig: the Ted Williams Tunnel connecting the city with Logan Airport and the Tip O’Neill Tunnel, which enabled Salvucci’s dream of removing the elevated Central Artery and knitting the city back together.

It makes no sense for me to summarize the podcast except to say that Coss does a masterful job of including a tremendous amount of detail and human-interest stories while keeping it moving. We learn all about Scheme Z, a phrase that I thought I’d never hear out loud again. The greedy parking lot owner who held up the airport tunnel. The soil that was softer than expected. The flaws in the slurry walls. That said, I do have three reservations.

  • At the end of episode 8, the Big Dig is portrayed as unsafe. Although Coss tells us that the improperly installed ceiling tiles that led to the death of a driver, Milena Delvalle, were fixed, you do not get the impression that the overall project was safe. Yet in episode 9, the epilogue, we learn that the Big Dig finally can be seen as a success story without any indication of how those safety problems — including significant leaks in the slurry walls — were overcome.
  • A personal pique, but audio clips of my friend and former GBH colleague Emily Rooney, who hosted “Greater Boston” and “Beat the Press” for many years, are heard over and over, especially in episodes 7 and 8 — yet she is never named. Even Howie Carr is identified after one brief snippet of sound. Emily was the face and voice of GBH News for many years, and she should have gotten a mention.
  • The series closes with the launch of the Green Line Extension, which is presented as a triumphant last piece of the puzzle. “It felt good to feel good about a big project that our city had accomplished,” Coss says. “To put the cynicism away for a day and just enjoy the ride.” Now, I’m sure the lead time for the podcast was long, but, uh.

Overall, though, “The Big Dig” is an extraordinarily well-done overview of a project that kept the city tied up in knots for years, and that has been a success despite the astronomical cost — more than $24 billion by some estimates, or triple the $7.7 billion that was budgeted once the work had started, which was itself far higher than the original $3 billion price tag.

I hope GBH got the bounce they were looking for, because I’d like to see more such podcasts in the future. And if you’re new to Boston, you learn a lot about our city from both the Globe’s reporting on the Stuart case and from “The Big Dig.” Along with J. Anthony Lukas’ book “Common Ground,” the story of Boston’s desegregation crisis, these two works of extended narrative journalism have entered the library of essential Boston reading and listening.

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A look back at when local TV newscasters were our biggest celebrities

A video clip of Liz Walker’s first newscast on WBZ-TV. Bob Lobel is at left.

For anyone under 40, or maybe 50, the idea that local television journalists used to be among our most prominent celebrities may sound unimaginable. Yes, today’s TV journalists are well known, but it’s a far cry from several decades ago.

This coming Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine takes us back to the 1980s, when WBZ-TV (Channel 4) had a five-member “dream team”: co-anchors Liz Walker and Jack Williams, weather forecaster Bruce Schwoegler, sports reporter Bob Lobel and entertainment reporter Joyce Kulhawik. Walker, Williams, Lobel, Kulhawik and Barbara Schwoegler, Bruce’s widow, take part in a wide-ranging conversation about what it meant to be local TV news stars some 40 years ago, and why that era ended. (Corporate greed, mostly.) Several of their contemporaries and successors are heard from, too.

Walker, who later became an ordained minister, was the first Black woman to anchor a local newscast in Boston, and — as she recalls — making the transition from her previous post in Little Rock, Arkansas, wasn’t easy:

Really, I had no idea. Boston is a tough city anyway, but in 1980 it was a tough city layered with all the racial implications. People were angry, people were traumatized, because they were still reeling from busing. We couldn’t go to Charlestown, they didn’t send us to Southie, because it was too explosive. You go to Roxbury, and they were just pissed at the media in general. There was no safe space.

The feature is tied in with WBZ’s 75th anniversary. As interesting as it is, I wish the Globe had acknowledged that WBZ was involved in a fierce rivalry during the 1980s with WCVB-TV (Channel 5), which had a dream team of its own: anchors Natalie Jacobson and Chet Curtis, who were married at the time, along with weather forecaster Dick Albert, sports reporter Mike Lynch and entertainment reporter Dixie Whatley. My friend Emily Rooney was assistant news director and, later, news director during those years.

The third network affiliate, Channel 7, which has had various call letters (it’s currently WHDH but is no longer a network affiliate), never established a similar identity, although it did unveil a high-powered anchor team of its own, Robin Young and Tom Ellis, in the 1980s.

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The Boston Globe announces it will seek to fill a void by hiring a media reporter

The Boston Globe is hiring a media reporter, a position that has gone vacant for many years. It sounds like a great job, though so broad you have to wonder who could possibly keep up with so much:

Part tech beat, part culture writing, part buzzy local scoops, this job calls for a journalist who’s eager and able to explore the many ways that media shapes modern life, in Boston and beyond. They will cover our region’s advertising and publishing industries and keep an eye on the bold-faced names of local TV, yes. But they’ll also dive into the endless evolution of social media, debates over digital privacy, and the roiling challenges of misinformation in all its forms, from Twitter and Threads to TikTok and new platforms using artificial intelligence.

The Globe has not had a full-time media reporter since Mark Jurkowitz, who left in 2005 and took over the media column at The Boston Phoenix after I left for Northeastern. Mark, who had also been my predecessor at the Phoenix, is now at the Pew Research Center.

This is good news, as we really have a dearth of media reporting in Boston. That dearth has been especially acute since GBH-TV canceled “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” in the summer of 2021, but there really hasn’t been much in terms of in-depth reporting since the Phoenix closed in 2013. The Globe has taken a couple of stabs at it but did not make a full commitment until now.

Brian Stelter’s departure is just the latest blow against media commentary

Brian Stelter. Photo (cc) 2019 by Ståle Grut.

The cancellation of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, is a development that resonates beyond one outlet and one journalist, because it takes place within the context of an ongoing decline in media commentary.

The news that Stelter was departing came Thursday evening. David Folkenflik’s account at NPR raises the possibility that Stelter was the victim of conservatives now ascendant at CNN, although the most prominent of those conservatives, John Malone, a major investor in CNN’s new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, told Benjamin Mullin of The New York Times that he had “nothing to do with” the move.

Chris Licht, who succeeded the scandal-plagued Jeff Zucker as the head of CNN, has said on several occasions that he wants to move away from opinionated talk shows and get back to CNN’s reporting roots. That’s fine, but we’re talking about Sunday morning, which isn’t exactly prime time. Stelter will host one final edition of “Reliable Sources” this coming Sunday, but I’d be surprised if he says much. In a statement to Folkenflik, he said, “It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential.”

Stelter came to CNN from the Times nearly a decade ago. During the Trump presidency, in particular, he used his perch at CNN to emerge as an important and outspoken advocate of an independent press. He’ll be missed, although I have little doubt that he’ll land on his feet. Maybe he’ll even return to the Times. Frankly, I never quite understood why he left in the first place.

As for what this move represents, well, it’s just the latest in a series of blows to media commentary. CNN isn’t just showing Stelter the door — it’s getting rid of a  program that had been in rotation for some 30 years, having been previously helmed by Howard Kurtz (now the host of “Media Buzz” on Fox News) and Bernard Kalb. The media are one of our most influential institutions, and journalism is under assault. This is not the time to dial back. Yet consider these other developments.

  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan is leaving to take a job at Duke University. Sullivan has been one of the true giants in holding journalism accountable. Before coming to the Post, she was a fearless public editor (the ombudsman) at The New York Times — someone unafraid of standing up to powerful people in her own newsroom. The position was later eliminated, removing a vital tool for accountability. At the Post, she’s used her platform to call for courage and truth-telling amid the Trump-driven onslaught against journalism.
  • The public radio program “On the Media,” as I’ve written before, is less and less about the media and more about the whims of its host, Brooke Gladstone, and the people around her. Cohost Bob Garfield was fired last year and accused of bullying the staff — charges he mostly denied in a recent essay at Substack. But the move toward non-media topics was well under way even before Garfield’s departure. The latest, believe it or not: a three-part series on erectile dysfunction. OK, they’re showcasing another podcast while they take a few weeks off. I hope they get back to real media reporting and commentary once they resume.
  • One of the most prominent media critics on the left, Eric Boehlert, was killed earlier this year when he was struck by a train while riding his bike. Before launching his own platform on Substack, Boehlert had worked for Media Matters and Salon. His Twitter feed was a running commentary on the sins of omission and commission by the so-called liberal media.
  • As many of you know, “Beat the Press,” the media program I was part of since its inception, was canceled last summer by GBH-TV (Channel 2) after 23 years on the air. Nothing lasts forever, and I was honored to be associated with the show. But we took on important national and local topics every week, and my own biased view is that its demise was a loss. Host Emily Rooney relaunched the program as an independent podcast earlier this year; I hope you’ll check it out.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing left in terms of media coverage and commentary. The Post, which is losing Sullivan, is still home to Erik Wemple, who writes incisive media criticism for the opinion section, Paul Farhi, an outstanding journalist who covers media stories for the news section, and others. One of the greats of media criticism, Jack Shafer, continues to write for Politico. And there are plenty of independent voices out there, from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to liberal watchdog Dan Froomkin to, well, me. (An aside: We need people of color and more women, especially with Sullivan moving on.)

Still, there’s less than there used to be, and “Reliable Sources” was a well-regarded outlet for many years. Best wishes to Brian Stelter. And I’ll be casting a wary eye toward Licht. Zucker left him with a real mess to clean up, but this was the wrong move.

Speaking of independent media criticism, please consider supporting this free source of news and commentary for just $5 a month.

We end our summer podcasts with a round-up of local news items. See you in September!

Rainbow Arch Bridge, Lake City, Iowa, the center of a bizarre newspaper war. Photo (cc) 2014 by David Wilson.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I dive into our reporter’s notebooks after our scheduled guest had a last-minute medical emergency, catching up with NJ Spotlight News, the emergence of The Lexington Observer, the transition at The Texas Tribune, and the turmoil at The Graphic-Advocate (both of them!) of Lake City, Iowa.

Ellen also has a rave for Emily Rooney’s “Beat the Press” podcast and her recent interview with legendary WCVB-TV news anchor Natalie Jacobson, who’s written a memoir about her life and career.

Like Boston’s Orange Line and Green Line, the “What Works” podcast will be off the intertubes for a few weeks as Ellen and I race to meet the deadline for our book about the future of local news. You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Just up at ‘Beat the Press’: Elon Musk, CNN+ and more

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The brand spanking new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, with our smoking hot takes on Elon Musk and Twitter, @LibsOfTikTok, the ethics of journalists who save the good stuff for their books, and the demise of CNN+. Plus our Rants & Raves. Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Joanna Weiss, Jon Keller and me. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

The latest from ‘Beat the Press’: CNN, Joe Rogan and the return of Rants & Raves

Joe Rogan. Photo (cc) 2014 by Do512.

This week, on the second “Beat the Press” podcast, we talk about the latest mishegas at CNN, as number-two executive — make that former number-two executive — Allison Gollust walks the plank.

Other topics include a discussion of how much responsibility Spotify should take for Joe Rogan’s vaccine disinformation and n-word-spewing mouth; privacy concerns over the death of comedian Bob Saget; and a conversation with civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, the co-founder of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Plus: Rants & Raves are back!

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Jon Keller, Lylah Alphonse and me. You can listen to “Beat the Press” on Apple and wherever fine podcasts are found.

The return of ‘Beat the Press’

“Beat the Press,” which was canceled last summer by GBH-TV after a 22-year run, is back — this time as a podcast.

Hosted, as always, by the incomparable Emily Rooney, our debut features a discussion of how the media should cover the crisis in democracy; the Cuomo-CNN meltdown (recorded before Jeff Zucker’s implosion); what to do about social media-driven hoaxes; and Dave Chappelle’s recent anti-transgender remarks.

Emily is joined by Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Jon Keller of WBZ-TV and me. You can find us on Apple Podcasts and, I imagine, just about anywhere else you get your podcasts.

In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Twenty-four years ago, Emily Rooney — whose long-running media-criticism program, “Beat the Press,” on which I was a panelist, was canceled last week by GBH News — was just beginning a new phase of her career, as host and executive editor of the news and public-affairs program “Greater Boston.” I wrote a piece for The Boston Phoenix about her debut as well as the state of the rivalry between WGBH and WBUR — a rivalry that, if anything, is more intense today than it was then. This story was published on Feb. 7, 1997. I’m republishing it here courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

The Boston Phoenix • Feb. 7, 1997

Emily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

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