Advocates of an elected Boston School Committee should be careful about what they wish for

Boston school hallway in 1973. Photo (cc) from the Mayor Kevin White photographs.

In 1996, when voters defeated a referendum that would have dissolved the then-newly appointed committee and brought back an elected board, one of the main arguments was that putting the mayor firmly in charge of the school system was actually more democratic.

“They elect me,” then-Mayor Tom Menino told me in an interview for The Boston Phoenix at the time. “Hold me accountable for what’s going on in the schools. I’m willing to face the issue head-on.”

Read the rest at GBH News.

What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Apple’s attempted crackdown on child sexual abuse leads to a battle over privacy

Apple CEO Tim Cook. Photo (cc) 2017 by Austin Community College.

Previously published at GBH News.

There is no privacy on the internet.

You would think such a commonplace observation hardly needs to be said out loud. In recent years, though, Apple has tried to market itself as the great exception.

“Privacy is built in from the beginning,” reads Apple’s privacy policy. “Our products and features include innovative privacy technologies and techniques designed to minimize how much of your data we — or anyone else — can access. And powerful security features help prevent anyone except you from being able to access your information. We are constantly working on new ways to keep your personal information safe.”

All that has now blown up in Apple’s face. Last Friday, the company backed off from a controversial initiative that would have allowed its iOS devices — that is, iPhones and iPads — to be scanned for the presence of child sexual abuse material, or CSAM. The policy, announced in early August, proved wildly unpopular with privacy advocates, who warned that it could open a backdoor to repressive governments seeking to spy on dissidents. Apple cooperates with China, for instance, arguing that it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates.

What made Apple’s efforts especially vulnerable to criticism was that it involved placing spyware directly on users’ devices. Although surveillance wouldn’t actually kick in unless users backed up their devices to Apple’s iCloud service, it raised alarms that the company was planning to engage in phone-level snooping.

“Apple has put in place elaborate measures to stop abuse from happening,” wrote Tatum Hunter and Reed Albergotti in The Washington Post. “But part of the problem is the unknown. iPhone users don’t know exactly where this is all headed, and while they might trust Apple, there is a nagging suspicion among privacy advocates and security researchers that something could go wrong.”

The initiative has proved to be a public-relations disaster for Apple. Albergotti, who apparently had enough of the company’s attempts at spin, wrote a remarkable sentence in his Friday story reporting the abrupt reversal: “Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said he would not provide a statement on Friday’s announcement because The Washington Post would not agree to use it without naming the spokesperson.”

That, in turn, brought an attaboy tweet from Albergotti’s Post colleague Christiano Lima, complete with flames and applauding hands, which promptly went viral.

“We in the press ought to do this far, far more often,” tweeted Troy Wolverton, managing editor of the Silicon Valley Business Journal, in a characteristically supportive response.

Even though the media rely on unnamed sources far too often, my own view is that there would have been nothing wrong with Albergotti’s going along with Sainz’s request. Sainz was essentially offering an on-the-record quote from Apple.

(Still, it’s hard not to experience a zing of delight at Albergotti’s insouciance. Now let’s see the Post do the same with politicians and government officials.)

Apple has gotten a lot of mileage out of its embrace of privacy. Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, delivered a speech earlier this year in which he attempted to position Apple as the ethical alternative to Google, Facebook and Amazon, whose business models depend on hoovering up vast amounts of data from their customers in order to sell them more stuff.

“If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated and sold, we lose so much more than data, we lose the freedom to be human,” Cook said. “And yet, this is a hopeful new season, a time of thoughtfulness and reform.”

The current controversy comes just months after Apple unveiled new features in its iOS operating software that made it more difficult for users to be tracked in a variety of ways, offering greater security for their email and more protection from being tracked by advertisers.

Yet it always seemed that there was something performative about Apple’s embrace of privacy. For instance, although Apple allows users to maintain tight control over their iPhones and iMessages, the company continues to hold the encryption keys to iCloud — which, in turn, makes the company liable to a court order to turn over user data.

“The dirty little secret with nearly all of Apple’s privacy promises is that there’s been a backdoor all along,” wrote privacy advocates Albert Fox Cahn and Evan Selinger in a recent commentary for Wired. “Whether it’s iPhone data from Apple’s latest devices or the iMessage data that the company constantly championed as being ‘end-to-end encrypted,’ all of this data is vulnerable when using iCloud.”

Of course, you might argue that there ought to be reasonable limits to privacy. Just as the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, libel or serious breaches of national security, privacy laws — or, in this case, a powerful company’s policies — shouldn’t protect child pornography or certain other activities such as terrorist threats. Fair enough.

But as the aforementioned Selinger, a professor of philosophy at MIT and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University, argued over the weekend in a Boston Globe Ideas piece, there are times when slippery-slope arguments, often bogus, are sometimes valid.

“Governments worldwide have a strong incentive to ask, if not demand, that Apple extend its monitoring to search for evidence of interest in politically controversial material and participation in politically contentious activities,” Selinger wrote, adding: “The strong incentives to push for intensified surveillance combined with the low costs for repurposing Apple’s technology make this situation a real slippery slope.”

Five years ago, the FBI sought a court order that would have forced Apple to provide the encryption keys so they could access the data on an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Apple refused, which set off a public controversy, including a debate between former CIA director John Deutsch and Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain that I covered for GBH News.

The controversy proved to be for naught. In the end, the FBI was able to break into the phone without Apple’s help. Which suggests a solution, however imperfect, to the current controversy.

Apple should withdraw its plan to install spyware directly on users’ iPhones and iPads. And it should remind users that anything stored in iCloud might be revealed in response to a legitimate court order. More than anything, Apple needs to stop making unrealistic promises and remind its users:

There is no privacy on the internet.

What the media are getting wrong about Biden and Afghanistan

Photo (cc) 2011 by the U.S. Army

Previously published at GBH News.

The United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan has finally come to its painful conclusion. “America’s Longest War Ends as Last Troops Leave Afghanistan” proclaimed The New York Times home page Monday evening.

There is, however, one dimension to the conflict that is still being fought — the role of the media in reporting on President Joe Biden’s management, or mismanagement, of the final chaotic and deadly weeks. Surely, many journalists said, Biden could have ensured a more dignified exit than a mad crush at Hamid Karzai International Airport, with desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from transport planes, culminating in last week’s terrorist attack.

Increasingly, though, others have been making the case that, once Biden decided to end American involvement in Afghanistan once and for all, there was no alternative to the monumental ugliness that played out on our TV screens.

“Biden does not deserve the cheap shots that critics have taken at him when they postulate that his administration screwed up what would otherwise have been an orderly withdrawal,” writes Daniel McCarthy, a vociferous Biden critic and a conservative, in The Spectator World. “Even if the withdrawal had been much better executed, as indeed it should have been, it would still have been a disgusting spectacle, a ripe occasion for media posturing and partisan sniping.”

The end — or a least a temporary pause — of the liberal-leaning mainstream media’s honeymoon with Biden can be traced to systemic flaws in the way that the press covers Washington. Three of those flaws have been on vivid display in recent weeks.

• First, there is the media’s primordial need for balance — for treating Democrats and Republicans as if they are both legitimate actors even though the Democrats, for all their flaws, continue to act as a normal political party while the Republicans have descended into authoritarianism and lies. The media cling to both-sides-ism despite four years of a raging sociopath in the White House, an attempted insurrection by his supporters, and dangerous denialism about COVID-19.

Thus, after five years of harshly negative coverage of Donald Trump (negative coverage that he richly deserved), you can almost hear the press breathe a collective sigh of relief that it can finally go after Biden and even up the score.

Here’s a data point that shows how ingrained this is. Last Friday, Amna Nawaz, filling in as anchor of the “PBS NewsHour,” noted in a conversation with political analysts Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks that a number of Republicans have criticized Biden over his handling of the war.

“It really does run the spectrum of Republicans,” she said. “You have everyone from Sen. Ben Sasse, to Sen. Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, President Trump.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene? The QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist from Georgia who continues to defend the insurrectionists? Well, she’s a duly elected member of Congress, and according to the both-sides formula, she needs to be normalized. It’s crazy, but that’s the way the game is played. Too bad it’s not a game.

• Second, maybe it really is a game. Because, in too many cases, the Washington press corps glides past the substance of an issue and wallows in the political implications. Partly it’s because politics is what they know and are most comfortable with. Partly it’s a way to avoid taking sides by focusing instead on who’s winning and who’s losing.

The caricature version of this type of pundit is political analyst Chris Cillizza of CNN. Last week, several days before the terrorist attack, Cillizza wrote a piece that dwelled entirely on the political ramifications of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, reveling in polling numbers and in what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen derides as the “savvy” style of political journalism.

“Biden’s bet,” Cillizza writes, “is that while Afghanistan is top-of-mind for most voters right now, it will fade as a priority — as foreign policy often does — when it is no longer the lead story in the news every day. That if Americans get out safely, that the public will lose interest in what’s happening in a faraway country and return to domestic issues like the state of the economy and our ongoing battle against COVID-19.”

Hey, it’s all politics, right?

• Third, too many establishment journalists, supposedly paid to cover the news rather than express their opinions, were in favor of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and opposed to Biden’s decision to end it once and for all.

“Much of the problems with the press coverage lie in the coziness between foreign policy elites and reporters who rely on them for information,” writes Alex Shephard in a perceptive New Republic piece. “The biases of interventionists and hawks flow frictionlessly into news coverage, treating the exit from Afghanistan as a capitulation and outrage, rather than as one — and perhaps the best — of a number of bad options.”

A telling example is Peter Baker’s widely criticized “news analysis” for The New York Times in which he quotes George W. Bush alum Meghan O’Sullivan and Gen. David Petraeus to argue that Biden could have achieved a different outcome. Describing Biden’s own framing of the options he had before him as “either complete withdrawal or endless escalation,” Baker writes, “Critics consider that either disingenuous or at the very least unimaginative, arguing that there were viable alternatives, even if not especially satisfying ones, that may not have ever led to outright victory but could have avoided the disaster now unfolding in Kabul and the provinces.”

Another example plays out on television, where a variety of former officials from the George W. Bush administration and former generals have been given air time to criticize Biden, notwithstanding their direct role in sucking us into what was, until recently, an endless war.

There is one other factor that needs to be considered when analyzing media coverage, and that’s the asymmetric role played by the mainstream media and the right-wing propaganda machine headed by Fox News.

As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, Democrats and liberals can’t always count on sympathy from the mainstream because journalists want to be seen as skeptical and even-handed. Fox, on the other hand, is going to espouse a mindless pro-Republican, pro-Trump line no matter what the issue, even if it is exactly the opposite of the line it took a week earlier. At moments like this, the entire weight of the media is coming down on Biden, whereas Republicans can count on Fox being in their corner even in the worst of times.

“Even the most dishonest, incompetent, and scandal-ridden Republican presidency imaginable — which more or less describes the one we just had — will still have a media environment divided almost equally between scorching criticism and obsequious fawning,” Chait writes, adding: “In recent days, CNN and MSNBC looked a lot like Fox News, all hyping chaos in Afghanistan 24/7. That is the kind of comprehensive media hostility Trump never had to worry about.”

Now, none of this means that critical coverage of Biden was entirely misplaced. Few presidents have ever come into office with his depth of foreign-policy experience and, seven months in, he’s no longer a new president. We’ve all seen reports that U.S. intelligence officials believed the Afghan government could hang on for a year or two before its inevitable collapse. Surely a more orderly withdrawal could have been planned if they had been right. Why was Biden so seemingly unaware that his own advisers didn’t know what they were talking about? What is he doing about it?

Last Friday, on “Washington Week,” host Yamiche Alcindor replayed Biden’s embarrassing answer to her question earlier this summer that there would be no repeat of the rooftop evacuation that marked the end of the Vietnam War. Biden was right — what happened in Kabul was considerably worse.

But one of Alcindor’s panelists, Ayesha Rascoe of NPR, made an important point that has too often been overlooked by the media in its eagerness to pillory the president: “I do think this is an American tragedy, though. This is 20 years. This is four administrations. This is not just on the Biden administration.”

Indeed. The war in Afghanistan was a generation-long tragedy. Bush could have launched a targeted attack aimed at capturing or killing Osama bin Laden rather than a full-scale war to remake Afghan society. Barack Obama could have declared victory and pulled out after bin Laden was killed.

Instead, it was left to Trump to question our ongoing commitment and Biden to bring it to an end. That doesn’t mean Biden got everything right and shouldn’t be subjected to tough scrutiny. It does mean that our flawed media system was inadequate to the moment — and that we need to think about how we can do better.

What local news outlets can do to overcome suspicion on the right

Photo (cc) 2008 by TimothyJ

Previously published at GBH News.

Recently I had a conversation with a hyperlocal news editor who wanted to talk through a dilemma. Her website, which covers such matters as town boards, schools, housing, public health and charity events, is resolutely nonpartisan. From the beginning, her goal has been to bring together people from varied backgrounds and with different political beliefs. Yet her sense was that most of her readers, like her, were liberal. What could she do to reach out to conservatives?

Her dilemma is not unique. Surveys show that people trust local and regional news more than they do the national media. Ideally, local news can help overcome the hyperpolarization that is tearing us apart at the national level and foster a spirit of community and cooperation.

Increasingly, though, the divisions that define national life are inescapable. Our school systems are rippling with rage over masks, vaccines and how kids are taught about racial justice. Discussions about policing have devolved into binary sloganeering about defunding the police or backing the blue.

And well-meaning journalists, mostly liberal but wanting to give a voice to everyone, wring their hands.

Last week, the research project Trusting News, a joint venture of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, released a report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences. More than 3,400 self-identified conservatives responded to a survey, and 91 of them were interviewed by 27 media outlets around the country. (In New England, the participants were New Hampshire Public Radio, Vermont’s Burlington Free Press and The Day of New London, Connecticut.)

The report, written by Marley Duchovnay, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Center for Media Engagement, and Gina M. Masullo, associate director of the center, makes six recommendations. Three of them are of particular interest:

  • “Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.”
  • “Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using ‘conservative’ or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.”
  • “Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.”

The first two bullet points are just good journalism: get to know your community, and don’t assume everyone on the right drives “a pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the back,” as Masullo put it at a webinar held last week to explain the findings. The third, though, is potentially problematic. News organizations don’t ask job candidates about their political views, nor should they. So how do we go about ensuring ideological diversity in the newsroom?

“I think more the idea is to, in your recruitment strategy, try to hit rural areas, more conservative areas,” said Masullo. And yes, that seems fine in theory. But with the journalism economy continuing to shrink, hiring is not an everyday occurrence — and the need to hire people of color to diversify overwhelmingly white newsrooms has to be a top priority.

I was also struck by another finding in the report — that material from wire services in local media outlets contributes to perceptions of liberal bias more than the local content does. At the webinar, the presenters cited Mark Rosenberg of the Victoria Advocate in Texas, who told them: “National news drives distrust in the media far more than local news, it was surprising and frustrating to hear. 95% of what I do is local, but the syndicated copy and columns is what is driving distrust. That is something that recurred in all three interviews that I did.”

To invoke the old cliché, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. For daily newspapers like the Advocate, which have positioned themselves as a single source for community, national and international news, it’s difficult to imagine how that problem could be solved — especially when some of the respondents complained even about The Associated Press, known for its lack of bias.

Most weekly papers and hyperlocal websites, though, focus exclusively on their community, which means that they avoid offending conservatives who don’t want to see national and international news that has what they consider to be a liberal slant.

One approach that even the editors and publishers of daily papers could consider is thinking about how they can de-emphasize national news, including syndicated columns, in their opinion sections. Earlier this week my research partner, Ellen Clegg, interviewed Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University about a study he conducted along with two other scholars. The study attempted to show what happened when the Desert Sun of Palm Beach, California, dropped national opinion content for a month and went exclusively local. The result was a slight but measurable decline in polarization.

“The experiment is not without controversy,” Clegg writes. “The Trump-Biden presidential race and the COVID pandemic arguably showed how much local election laws, local public health policies and local governments matter in setting the course of the nation’s future. Abandoning coverage entirely — and opinion page columns do constitute a form of coverage all their own — could seem irresponsible to some.”

Still, for many daily newspaper editors, running syndicated material in the opinion section isn’t a way to serve readers so much as it is an aversion to new ways of doing things. More local opinion journalism, combined with some national content from the left and the right, would seem like a good mix.

A crucial concern that isn’t really addressed in the report but that did come up at the webinar is the importance of not pandering to people with right-wing views. Though the goal of broadening the conversation and bringing more voices into the tent is a laudable one, we can’t forget that it’s conservatives — radicals, really — who have gone off the rails, embracing lies about the outcome of the last election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, vaccinations, mask-wearing and such. Trusting News director Joy Mayer, though, told the participants that the very nature of the study tended to weed such people out.

“The people who self-selected into this research were not the people with the most extreme views and the most extreme distrust,” Mayer said. “If you are willing to spend an hour sitting and talking to a local journalist, you have to believe that they want to change. You have to believe they’re worth an investment of your time. The whole world is not made up of people who would be grateful for an hour to spend with a journalist.”

If journalists who run local news projects want to serve everyone in their community, and not just the more liberal elements, then the fundamental ideas outlined in the report are worth paying attention to: listen; be fair; don’t resort to cheap labels in describing those with different views.

I don’t know if it can help. But getting past the divisions that are ripping us apart is perhaps the most vital challenge facing us today. If there is to be solution, it’s got to start at the local level.

Researchers dig up embarrassing data about Facebook — and lose access to their accounts

Photo (cc) 2011 by thierry ehrmann

Previously published at GBH News.

For researchers, Facebook is something of a black box. It’s hard to know what its 2.8 billion active users across the globe are seeing at any given time because the social media giant keeps most of its data to itself. If some users are seeing ads aimed at “Jew haters,” or Russian-generated memes comparing Hillary Clinton to Satan, well, so be it. Mark Zuckerberg has his strategy down cold: apologize when exposed, then move on to the next appalling scheme.

Some data scientists, though, have managed to pierce the darkness. Among them are Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy of New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity. With a tool called Ad Observer, which volunteers add to their browsers, they were able to track ads that Facebook users were being exposed to and draw some conclusions. For instance, they learned that users are more likely to engage with extreme falsehoods than with truthful material, and that more than 100,000 political ads are missing from an archive Facebook set up for researchers.

As you would expect, Facebook executives took these findings seriously. So what did they do? Did they change the algorithm to make it more likely that users would see reliable information in their news feed? Did they restore the missing ads and take steps to make sure such omissions wouldn’t happen again?

They did not. Instead, they cut off access to Edelson’s and McCoy’s accounts, making it harder for them to dig up such embarrassing facts in the future.

“There is still a lot of important research we want to do,” they wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “When Facebook shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.”

In other words, they want to find out how responsible Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest are for spreading a deadly illness and encouraging an armed insurrection. No wonder Facebook looked at what the researchers were doing and told them, gee, you know, we’d love to help, but you’re violating our privacy rules.

But that’s not even a real concern. Writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram points out that the privacy rules Facebook agreed to following the Cambridge Analytica scandal apply to Facebook itself, not to users who voluntarily agree to provide information to researchers.

Ingram quotes Princeton professor Jonathan Mayer, an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a senator, who tweeted: “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus. The order “restricts how *Facebook* shares user information. It doesn’t preclude *users* from volunteering information about their experiences on the platform, including through a browser extension.”

The way Ingram describes it, as well as Edelson and McCoy themselves, Facebook’s actions didn’t stop their work altogether, but it has slowed it down and made it more difficult. Needless to say, the company should be doing everything it can to help with such research. Then again, Zuckerberg has never shown much regard for such mundane matters as public health and the future of democracy, especially when there’s money to be made.

By contrast, Facebook’s social media competitor Twitter has actually been much more open about making its data available to researchers. My Northeastern colleague John Wihbey, who co-authored an important study several years ago about how journalists use Twitter, says the difference explains why there have been more studies published about Twitter than Facebook. “This is unfortunate,” he says, “as it is a smaller network and less representative of the general public.”

It’s like the old saw about looking for your car keys under a street light because that’s where the light is. Trouble is, with fewer than 400 million active users, Twitter is little more than a rounding error in Facebook’s universe.

Earlier this year, MIT’s Technology Review published a remarkable story documenting how Facebook shied away from cracking down on extremist content, focusing instead on placating Donald Trump and other figures on the political right before the 2020 election. Needless to say, the NYU researchers represent an especially potent threat to the Zuckerborg since they plan to focus on the role that Facebook played in amplifying the disinformation that led to the insurrection, whose aftermath continues to befoul our body politic.

When the history of this ugly era is written, the two media giants that will stand out for their malignity are Fox News, for knowingly poisoning tens of millions of people with toxic falsehoods, and Facebook, for allowing its platform be used to amplify those falsehoods. Eventually, the truth will be told — no matter what steps Zuckerberg takes to slow it down. There should be hell to pay.

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.

Continue reading “In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry”

Best wishes to Emily Rooney as ‘Beat the Press’ comes to an end after 22 years

Our 20th anniversary show, Dec. 7, 2018

Major local media news today as GBH News has announced that it’s canceling “Beat the Press” after a 22-year run. I am proud to have been part of the show since its first year, 1998, and to have been a regular for many of those years. And I’m grateful to Emily Rooney, the host and creator of the show. We’ve been on hiatus since June 11; as it turns out, that was our finale.

I’ll continue writing my weekly column on media and politics for GBH News.

It’s hard to put into words what I’m feeling right now. For so many years, heading over to GBH to record “Beat the Press” was simply what I did on Friday afternoons. I hugely enjoyed getting to know Emily, Callie Crossley and everyone else. (I’ll stop at Emily and Callie because if I start naming names, I’ll leave too many out.)

Emily began hosting “Greater Boston” in the mid-’90s. From the beginning it was a Monday-through-Thursday show, with the Friday slot originally taken up by something called “The Long and the Short of It,” with Robert Reich and Alan Simpson. After that show had run its course, Emily pitched “Beat the Press” to WGBH executives (yes, the station still had a “W” back then), and we were off and running.

I haven’t had a chance to talk with Emily yet, but I wish her all the best. She is a legendary figure in Boston media, as news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), at the national level and, for the past quarter century, at GBH News. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

Finally, best wishes to Kara Miller, whose program on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM), “Innovation Hub,” will be coming to an end later this year as well.

What follows is the press release from GBH News:

GBH continues to build a multiplatform news organization that provides our community with the most distinctive, relevant and interesting stories of the day. GBH News is deepening its focus on audience-centered local stories, and concentrating its editorial efforts on the critical issues of education, social justice, Covid/public health and politics. As a result, GBH will discontinue production of two weekly programs, Beat the Press with Emily Rooney, which examines the local and national media, and the national radio series Innovation Hub with Kara Miller.

“This was a difficult decision. Beat the Press has been one of GBH’s longest running news shows and has provided viewers with informative and thought-provoking insight, commentary and perspective on the workings of the media. We are grateful to Emily Rooney for her award-winning work, her dedication to her craft, and her many contributions to GBH over 24 years.”

Innovation Hub has given us a deeper understanding of the inventive spirit of human ideas and technology over the course of a decade. We thank Kara Miller and the Innovation Hub production team for their exceptional work, creativity and contributions to public media.”

– Pam Johnston, General Manager GBH News

Beat the Press is currently on summer hiatus and will not return in September; Innovation Hub will continue to air through mid-November in national distribution with PRX.

A media scholar explains why news for the liberal elite is hurting us all

Previously published at GBH News.

As technological and cultural forces have ripped apart the economic foundations of local and regional journalism, news executives have desperately sought out audiences with the money and inclination to pay.

These audiences — affluent, well-educated, liberal and overwhelmingly white — favor news organizations with a national focus such as The New York Times, NPR and the “PBS NewsHour.” Meanwhile, marginalized Americans, from urban communities of color to the rural white working class, have been left behind.

In her new book, “News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism,” Nikki Usher tracks the decline of what she calls “Goldilocks newspapers” — large regional papers like The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Unlike the fairy tale, though, Usher’s definition of Goldilocks papers are places where everything is just wrong — the outlets are too large to serve local communities, too small to contend with national media and unable to compete with Google and Facebook in the digital advertising market. (Disclosure: Usher interviewed me for her book.)

“Losing local news … leaves national news to pick up the slack,” Usher writes, “meaning many people in the United States do not see where they live or people like them authentically presented in the news.”

Usher, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, earned her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and is a Harvard graduate. The following email interview has been lightly edited.

Q: You argue that the economic challenges facing journalism have led news organizations to pursue an audience that is mostly white, liberal and affluent. How did we get here?

A: For decades, news organizations have sought to reach so-called quality audiences, or audiences that advertisers want to reach — so trying to reach those with disposable income is always the goal, right? It’s important to remember that for most of contemporary history, newspapers, magazines, broadcast television and radio made their money by selling audiences to advertisers. However, since the 1960s and 1970s, newspapers strategically moved away from selling to working-class audiences to focus on those profiting from the post-war boom.

But now we’re in a really different era. The traditional advertising model for newspapers, in particular, has collapsed, thanks to the upside-down logics of digital advertising and the changing dynamics, interests and behavior of digital audiences. When it comes to digital, audiences for local news are especially tiny. And we have market failure for local newspapers, meaning that the market is no longer supporting the costs of production and distribution. This is a real, actual crisis, with at least 1,800 communities losing a local newspaper since 2004.

So this is the context: the audiences for newspapers are smaller and the traditional ad model is broken. In a state of market failure, pre-existing inequities in coverage and access are amplified. News organizations have to focus on those most likely to pay for a digital subscription. The news organizations most likely to survive are large, national news organizations like The New York Times, which can scale these digital subscriptions.

Who are those who can and will pay? Well, those with disposable income who have the cultural capital to recognize that local journalism matters. That veers affluent, although “rich” is more tied to an elite outlook and framing than it is actual income. For instance, a student at Harvard might choose to pay for a student-rate for a digital subscription and get hooked for life, or at least that’s the hope.

Income and class are horribly correlated with race in this country, but the reality of white audiences comes out of a much larger problem: the longstanding whiteness of the institutional news media. At the moment we’re having a reckoning, but, for too long, white voices have dominated the production of news in this country, excluding and stereotyping historically marginalized communities and journalists from these communities. Institutional news media has for decades been for and by white.

And, well, the Blue? Liberal audiences? Oh boy, that’s a whole depressing conversation, but the only people who still trust the mainstream news media are liberals, which poll after poll shows is the case. Additional data suggests liberals believe in the civic value of local news enough to pay for it. Markets shape journalism and journalists, and here is where we are: digital subscriptions are not for everyone, and the news produced is coming from journalists who have a white, largely culturally elite background — especially as it becomes more and more financially precarious to become a journalist.

Q: What are the implications for democracy?

A: So, there are lots of different ways to think about democracy. The cynic in me would like to point out that much of the kind of locally specific accountability journalism we worry about losing has been a historical anomaly, mainly present only in major cities at large news outlets as a post-Watergate phenomenon. So news equals democracy isn’t a historically accurate framing.

But journalism is more than just about information; it’s about creating a shared culture. That shared culture reflects the biases of its creators, but it’s important to have journalism to document the shared meaning and history of a place — and I worry so much about what happens when that is no longer present.

When we just have large national news organizations telling the stories about American life, and quality news is available only to those who will pay, we get a super-distorted version of democracy. You can have democracy — but it’s an elite democracy that serves the interests and information needs of elites, rather than journalism that facilitates the pluralistic multicultural democracy that we need.

Q: You and I talked about The Boston Globe’s success, one of a few exceptions to the overall decline of large regional newspapers. Do you think that’s because of committed local ownership — and could that be replicated elsewhere? Or is it simply a consequence of Boston being one of the last great news towns?

A: Boston is a great news town. Have they finally caught Whitey Bulger’s ghost, or are there other mobsters still lurking around in Southie? I had a blast as a Globe intern eons ago.

But in all seriousness, Boston has a lot of advantages that structurally predispose it to being a place where local news thrives: there is a large sector of wealthy, educated, liberal Americans who see the value of paying for news. Boston also has famously corrupt institutions, like the Catholic Church, and the value of exposing corruption is not lost on Boston area residents. Boston sports fans are rabid.

So yes, local ownership makes a huge difference. John Henry’s tolerance for loss is likely a little greater than some of the other billionaires investing in news, plus he’s really in the billionaire class. That gives the Globe a bit of a cushion that isn’t present elsewhere.

Q: Could a healthier media environment help overcome the political and cultural polarization that is tearing us apart? How?

A: How we define health reflects our normative and partisan bias about what constitutes a healthy news environment. For those who are on the far right, the present news environment, where conservative media now reaches deep into the trenches of American life, this is a golden time for a historical correction.

Before having this conversation, we need to remember that diagnoses of health, civility and incivility, and polarization can be turned into variables, but they are also in the eye of the beholder. Some data suggests that what is tearing us apart is not just our views but how we actually feel about people who are not like us. To overcome this, it might be helpful to have the press stop demonizing people who don’t act or behave the way you wish they would — at present, anti-vaxxers in rural America — and stop stereotyping historically marginalized communities that have long been harmed by problematic and extractive news coverage.

The seeds of our dysfunction are baked into the press, yes, but also, as I argue in the book, are part and parcel of the larger social, regional, structural and racial inequities that we have let grow.

Q: Choosing from among the possible solutions you outline at the end of your book, please identify one that you think would have the greatest impact.

A: Can I pick two? Antitrust breakup of Big Tech, which might restore some competition to the digital advertising market and undermine the monopoly over consumer data that advantages big tech companies.

The unlikely one? Having the Democratic Party or party donors start funding local news media directly, as the Republicans are already doing.

Yes, Delta is serious business — but the media need to cover it with context and nuance

Photo (cc) 2008 by André Luiz D. Takahashi

Previously published at GBH News.

Like most of us, I’m confused and concerned about the latest news regarding COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

Everyone in my immediate circle, including me, is fully vaccinated, healthy and, if no longer young, then not elderly yet, either. So I’m confident that if any of us got sick, we’d experience nothing more than mild symptoms.

But what about others? We all encounter people on a daily basis who can’t be vaccinated because they’re too young or have compromised immune systems. If we don’t mask up once again, are we all going to turn into carriers who fuel yet another surge of a disease that has killed 613,000 of our fellow Americans?

In addition, there’s the resentment we can’t help but feel toward those who resisted masking and are now resisting vaccines. Josh Marshall, writing at Talking Points Memo, put it this way: “Masking is coming back largely because of the actions of the unvaccinated and also largely for the benefit of the unvaccinated [Marshall’s emphasis]. The burden of non-vaccination is being placed on those who are vaccinated. That basic disconnect is our problem.

“That disconnect places no effective pressure on the voluntarily unvaccinated while sowing demoralization and frustration and contempt with public authorities among those who’ve gotten the vaccine,” he continued. “No good comes of that combination.”

So where does that leave us? More than anything, I think the media need to do a better job of communicating risk. Even with Delta, which is far more contagious than the original iteration of COVID-19, the vaccines are highly effective. No one died in the now-infamous Provincetown outbreak, and life there is already returning to normal. As President Joe Biden said recently, what we’re dealing with now is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

There are all kinds of data that show Delta isn’t a problem for people who are vaccinated. For instance, Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina tweeted on Sunday that just 6,587 have been hospitalized among the 163 million people who’ve been vaccinated. That’s an almost unmeasurable 0.004%.

There’s good news on the vaccination front, too, as the number of people getting the shots has been rising since mid-July. Presumably there are several reasons for that, such as fear of Delta as well as a sudden burst of semi-responsible behavior by leading Republican officials and right-wing media figures. More good news: Walmart and Disney announced over the weekend that they’re going to require their employees to be vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t covered itself with glory, arguably sending the country into a panic over the Provincetown outbreak before all the data were in. But as scientists who are responsible for public health, they’re going to try to provide guidance in real time, and sometimes they’re going to get it wrong. Which means that the media need to do better by not obsessing over infinitesimal numbers.

“Scary, sensational headlines about P-town have sparked confusion this week, but the problem is much bigger than a single outbreak in a single town,” said Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” in his Sunday commentary. “The problem starts with the CDC and its absolute failure to communicate clearly and effectively. Sloppy news coverage then makes a bad situation worse.”

As Stelter noted, COVID hospitalizations are up nationally because of the Delta variant. But they’re up far more in states with low vaccination rates like Louisiana than in states with high rates like Vermont. If you and your family have been fully vaccinated, the pandemic is largely over.

My attitude about COVID since the beginning of the pandemic has been to take it seriously and follow the guidelines and mandates, but not to exceed them. I taught two of my classes in person and took public transportation throughout — masked, of course. I was thrilled when the mask mandate was dropped, and I’m not eager to go back to it.

But I will if those are the rules. I’ve gone grocery shopping a couple of times during the past week, and I’ve pulled out my mask and put it on. I didn’t think it was necessary, but most of the other shoppers were wearing them, so I didn’t want to seem cavalier.

This week we’re going on vacation, and on our way home we’re going to visit my 92-year-old father-in-law in upstate New York. He’s fully vaxxed, but that presents a dilemma, doesn’t it? The vaccines simply don’t work as well among the elderly. Maybe we’ll mask up. Maybe it will be nice enough that we can sit outside.

The past 17 months have been a nightmare for the country and the world. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like it might be over. It wasn’t.

But that doesn’t change the fundamental facts. We are in a far better place than we were during the height of the pandemic. Vaccines work. With some adjustments, life can return to normal. And the media need to report this ongoing story with context and nuance rather than sending everyone into a panic with each twist and turn.