‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

In response to the rampaging vulture capitalism that was threatening to destroy their newspaper, union employees at the Hartford Courant last year launched a campaign to find a nonprofit organization that would save their jobs and the journalism their community depends on.

Not only did they fail, but the situation at the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America, just got infinitely worse.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Phillip Martin reflects on the fight against racism in Boston

Phillip Martin. Photo by Meredith Nierman / GBH News.

The Boston Globe Magazine has published a tremendous personal essay by my GBH News colleague Phillip Martin on coming to Boston in the 1970s to fight racism. He was so bruised and battered by the experience that he returned home to Detroit — only to come back a year later and stay. He writes:

Boston was a 1970s version of 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, in my view, with white grievance over desegregation and voting rights updated as white protests over school desegregation through court-ordered busing. That history was precisely why I enlisted, somewhat naively, to go to Boston in the summer of 1975: to fight against racism.

We’ve come a long way, though we still have a long way to go. Please read what Phillip has to say.

Biden is trying to move on from Trump. Will the media let him?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

President Joe Biden spoke for many of us about 30 minutes into his town hall event on CNN Tuesday night.

“I’m tired of Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

Read the rest at GBH News.

Google and Facebook have decimated newspaper ad revenues. A lawsuit aims to change that.

GBH News illustration by Brendan Lynch

One afternoon in early 2016, I arrived at The Boston Globe’s former headquarters in Dorchester to talk with John Henry about the state of his newspaper. Before we could begin, though, he wanted to talk about something that was bugging him.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Twitter reportedly bans Mass. political gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai

Shiva Ayyadurai, in white hat. Photo (cc) 2019 by Marc Nozell.

Massachusetts Republican gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai has been banned from Twitter, most likely for claiming that he’d lost his most recent race for the U.S. Senate only because Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office destroyed a million electronic ballots. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has the details.

In 2018, I gave the City of Cambridge a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for ordering Ayyadurai to dismantle an wildly offensive sign on his company’s Cambridge property that criticized Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. City officials told him that the sign, which read “Only a REAL INDIAN Can Defeat the Fake Indian,” violated the city’s building code.

Ayyadurai threatened to sue, which led the city to back off.

Spotlighting undercovered news: Northeastern students reach beyond the headlines

COVID infections are down both nationally and in Massachusetts. Photo (cc) 2020 by
Daniele Marzocchi.

Previously published at GBH News.

In a time of national crisis — make that crises — there’s plenty of important news that gets overlooked. Vaccine delays, President Joe Biden’s economic-rescue package and, of course, Impeachment: The Sequel have overshadowed other topics to which we ought to be paying attention.

Every semester, I ask my journalism ethics students at Northeastern University to come up with a list of undercovered stories. Their answers are always intriguing. Invariably they find Washington, D.C., politics to be less compelling than what’s going on internationally and locally.

From a farmers’ strike in India to Australia’s crackdown on Google and Facebook, from good news about the coronavirus to still more good news about struggling Massachusetts cities like Chelsea and Brockton, my students have come through with stories we all ought to know more about. Even better, they’ve pretty much written my column for me this week.

Here are some highlights. The ranking is mine, but the ideas are all theirs.

7. Pandemic puppies. The isolation created by COVID-19 has led to an enormous upsurge in pet adoption — which, in turn, has fueled demand for purebred puppies, a problematic development for anyone who cares about animal welfare.

“During lockdown, puppies appealed both to single people facing months without human contact and to desperate parents seeking playmates for their lonely, screen-addicted children,” according to the Robb Report.

But as Robb and The Guardian reported, this demand has kept so-called puppy mills in business and has given rise to dogs that are genetically predisposed to health issues such as epilepsy and immune-system disorders.

6. Chelsea morning. During the pandemic, the news out of low-income cities in the Boston area such as Chelsea and Brockton has usually been bad — people of color working in service jobs and living in cramped quarters have had some of the highest rates of disease in the state.

This challenge, though, has also created an opportunity for activists to improve life in the state’s gateway communities. The Boston Globe’s “On The Street” series has documented some of those efforts. In Chelsea, for instance, Roseann Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, told the Globe that the pandemic has led to new levels of cooperation among the city’s social-service providers.

“We’ve really broken down the silos,” Bongiovanni was quoted as saying. “I think post-pandemic you’re going to see a lot of collaboration, and this might give us an opportunity to think about the larger structural issues. Like why are so many people in Chelsea food insecure? Why is it that Chelsea was so sick?”

5. A revolution in sports viewing. In some parts of the mediasphere this is very big news indeed: The New York Times reports that NBCUniversal is shutting down the NBC Sports Network, moving some of its programming to the USA Network and — of more relevance — some of it to Peacock, its internet streaming service.

As more and more viewers are cutting cable and moving to streaming, media companies are attempting to move with them. The result is a dizzying array of options that, when you add them up, start to look like the same high price tag that viewers were paying for cable for so many years.

Media executives in charge of sports programming have been slow to embrace streaming because their viewers tend to be older and more likely to stick with cable. Yet the revolution is coming. GeekWire observes that some NFL games are already being shown exclusively on Amazon Prime.

4. Down under with Big Tech. In a case that ought to be watched closely in the United States, Australian regulators are waging war against the American technology giants Google and Facebook. At issue: The Aussies are insisting that the platforms pay for the news content that they use. Google and Facebook say they’ll delete news from what they publish before they let that happen.

The BBC reported that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government has the right to set its own rules for how the internet is governed within its borders. “Let me be clear: Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia,” Morrison said. “That’s done in our parliament.”

At a time when disgust with Big Tech has led to calls for regulation in the U.S., the standoff in Australia is well worth keeping an eye on. Local news is in crisis. If Google and Facebook can be persuaded — or pressured — into helping to fund community journalism, it could make an enormous difference to news organizations’ bottom lines.

3. The feminization of unemployment. The pandemic-related economic collapse has hit different communities and groups of people in different ways. Some have hardly been affected. Others are really suffering. What few news organizations point out, though, is that the burden of lost jobs has been disproportionately borne by women.

In December, according to the National Women’s Law Center, 156,000 jobs were lost in sectors that traditionally employ women, while male-dominated jobs actually increased by 16,000. Overall, since February of last year, women have lost more than 5.4 million jobs, amounting to 55% of net job losses since the beginning of the pandemic. The situation is even worse among Black and Latina women, the center reports.

This trend, though, has not broken through in media reports. A recent article in The New York Times made little mention of the disproportionate effect of pandemic-related unemployment on women, and a Washington Post story made no mention of it at all.

2. Farmers’ strike in India. One of the biggest stories on the planet right now is getting scant attention from the American media. Tens of thousands of farmers in India, the world’s largest democracy, are on strike, protesting attempts by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impose new laws that they say will make it harder for them to sell their crops at a fair price.

According to The New York Times, one of the few U.S. outlets to cover the strike in any detail, the farmers’ action represents a significant challenge to Modi. Hartosh Singh Bal of The Caravan, a New Delhi-based magazine, wrote in a Times op-ed: “For the first time in six years, Mr. Modi is encountering opposition that he has not been able to stifle or tar with his extensive propaganda machinery.”

Modi is one of a number of authoritarian-minded rulers who have dominated the international stage in recent years. But now Russia’s Vladimir Putin faces massive protests. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is losing popularity over his handling of the pandemic and corruption. And, of course, former President Donald Trump is gone after encouraging an inept but deadly assault on Congress. Seen in that context, the challenges facing Modi may be further evidence that the autocratic wave has crested.

1. Good news on COVID-19. Despite the shimmering promise of highly effective vaccines that, so far, not nearly enough people have been able to get, the day-to-day news about the pandemic remains grim. Hospitals in some parts of the country are full, dangerous new variants are spreading across the globe and the U.S. death toll will likely hit an unimaginable 500,000 in a few weeks.

Yet the curve of new cases nationwide is trending sharply downward, The New York Times reports. In Massachusetts, too, the most recent surge is easing, from a seven-day average of more than 6,000 new daily cases in mid-January to around 3,400 today, as this Boston Globe chart shows. Maybe it’s because enough people have now been vaccinated to make a difference. Maybe it’s because admonitions about masking and social-distancing are being taken more seriously. Or maybe it’s just a lull before the next storm.

Regardless, fewer cases and fewer deaths are good news for all of us — and a reminder that, just like pandemics of decades past, this one, too, will end.

Philly Inquirer kills comments

The Philadelphia Inquirer is getting rid of most of its comments. Why?

Commenting on Inquirer.com was long ago hijacked by a small group of trolls who traffic in racism, misogyny, and homophobia. This group comprises a tiny fraction of the Inquirer.com audience. But its impact is disproportionate and enduring.

A few years ago, after a content-management system upgrade, GBH News killed its comment sections. If anyone complained, I’m not aware of it. Every news organization should consider emulating the Inquirer — including The Boston Globe.

For five years, Trump outrage has fueled media profits. So now what?

Trump supporter in North Carolina last September. Photo (cc) 2020 by Anthony Crider.

Previously published at GBH News.

Last Friday, The New York Times published the sort of story we’ve become quite familiar with — a blockbuster about Donald Trump. Times reporter Katie Benner revealed that, during Trump’s final days as president, he’d considered removing the acting attorney general as part of a plot to overturn the election results in Georgia.

For the past five years, such reporting has been very, very good for national news organizations. Trump outrage has provided elite newspapers, cable news stations and other prominent outlets with a jolt they hadn’t seen since the internet began eating away at their audience and revenue several decades earlier. But now it’s coming to an end.

The question is whether the Trump-era boost can outlast Trump.

In an interview with the public radio program “On The Media” over the weekend, co-host Brooke Gladstone asked McKay Coppins of The Atlantic — a news organization that has done especially well during the Trump years — if “Trump was good for the journalism business or bad?”

Coppins’ answer: “Well, from a bottom-line perspective, almost certainly good.”

The numbers tell quite a story. Consider The Times and The Washington Post, the two national newspapers that became most closely associated with covering the chaos and corruption of the Trump presidency. Between early 2017 and November 2020, The Times’ digital circulation grew from about 2 million to more than 7 million; 4.7 million are paying for the core news product, with the rest signed up for cheaper extras such as the crossword puzzle and the cooking app.

Growth has been equally impressive at The Post — from perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016, according to an estimate by the newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor, to 1 million at the end of 2017, to 3 million in November 2020, Axios reported.

Or consider cable news, which has experienced an enormous upsurge in audience throughout the Trump years. Figures compiled by Heidi Legg, a journalist and a research fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, show that the combined prime-time audience of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News rose from about 3.1 million in 2015 to nearly 7.2 million in 2020, with the Trump-friendly Fox far ahead of the pack for most of that period.

In a similar vein, it’s instructive to look at what happened last February after NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly conducted a contentious interview with Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who falsely claimed that Kelly had broken ground rules and angrily brought the proceedings to an abrupt end. The Post’s Erik Wemple reported that donations to NPR and member stations soared immediately afterward, though no numbers were available.

With Trump giving way to President Joe Biden, a far more low-key and disciplined politician, many journalists are breathing a massive sigh of relief as they contemplate returning to something like a normal life. But will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?

There are reasons for hope. Following the November election, CNN — the highest quality of the three cable outlets, flawed though it is by the same talk-show mentality as its competitors — moved solidly into first place following years of ratings dominance by Fox News. And there are signs that it may stay there.

As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter, only a portion of the Fox audience has gravitated to the even Trumpier outlets Newsmax and OANN. More have given up on cable news altogether, most likely shifting to entertainment programming. If a larger share of the viewing public is watching CNN and its liberal counterpart, MSNBC, then that’s a boost for factual information.

Moreover, when Trump was running for president in 2015 and 2016, the public was still getting used to the idea that everything on the internet wasn’t free. Five years later, we are becoming accustomed to paying not just for news but for video services like Netflix and music apps like Spotify. Even with Biden slowing down the metabolism of the news cycle, media habits developed during the Trump years may be ingrained at this point. And it’s not as though there’s a shortage of crises to stay informed about, from COVID-19 and the economy to racial justice and the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Trumpist insurrection.

One last point: The Trump era may have been good for the business of journalism, at least on the national level (the local news crisis grows worse and worse). But it may not have been so good for the practice of journalism. In his interview with Brooke Gladstone, McKay Coppins spoke ruefully about how easy it was for reporters like him to gain a national following simply by trashing Trump.

“How do we move forward when you don’t have a president who’s shattering norms and breaking precedent and doing outlandish things every day?,” he asked, adding: “It’s really important that we not have our business models depend on that being the case. Because if they are, all of us are going to be pushed to insert artificial drama into every story we do, and that’s not good for anyone.”

The real story in Washington is dramatic enough. A Democratic president with razor-thin margins in Congress will attempt to govern while many of the most prominent members of the Republican opposition appear to favor authoritarianism over democracy — and who, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., continue to spout lies about election fraud. Trump aside, we may be moving through the country’s most dangerous moment since the Civil War.

That ought to be enough to hold anyone’s interest — and to keep the revenues flowing so that we can pay for the journalism that we need.

Cruel and unusual: Trump’s death penalty rampage demeans us all

Lisa Montgomery

Previously published at GBH News.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been defined by shocking cruelty. Sometimes it’s been deliberate, as with his practice of taking children from the families of undocumented immigrants. Sometimes it’s the result of wanton neglect and cynical blame-shifting, as with his deadly handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s been such a never-ending torrent or horrors for the past four years that some of his misdeeds are in danger of being overlooked. One that we should be focused on, though, is the spree of federal executions he’s ordered during his final months in office.

Starting last July, 13 people were executed — six of them since the election, when Trump was defeated by Joe Biden, who has said he will not use the death penalty once he becomes president. By contrast, there had been only three federal executions since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, all presided over by George W. Bush.

Trump was in such a rush to kill that the final execution, of Dustin John Higgs, was carried out just a few days before Biden’s inauguration. And in a textbook illustration of how inequitably the ultimate punishment is used, Higgs was put to death for killing three women even though it was an associate, Willis Haynes, who shot them to death. Haynes received a 45-year sentence.

Capital punishment is a relic of the past — a barbaric measure not worthy of a decent society. Western Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa and all of South America have either abolished it or no longer use it. Our peers are repressive regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and a handful of others (including, oddly enough, Japan).

And despite our ignominious status as a country that still executes people, capital punishment has been waning even in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“At the end of the year,” the center said in a recent report, “more states had abolished the death penalty or gone ten years without an execution, more counties had elected reform prosecutors who pledged never to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly; fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since the Supreme Court struck down U.S. death penalty laws in 1972; and despite a six-month spree of federal executions without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, fewer executions were carried out than in any year in nearly three decades.”

Trump, lest you forget, called for New York to reinstate the death penalty following the conviction of five young men in a violent assault against a female jogger in Central Park a generation ago; they were later exonerated. Not much has changed. Trump’s current spate of executions, according to ProPublica, has been marked by stunning breaches of protocol and procedure.

“Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases,” ProPublica reported. “They moved ahead with executions in the middle of the night. They left one prisoner strapped to the gurney while lawyers worked to remove a court order. They executed a second prisoner while an appeal was still pending, leaving the court to then dismiss the appeal as ‘moot’ because the man was already dead. They bought drugs from a secret pharmacy that failed a quality test. They hired private executioners and paid them in cash.”

Those who are sentenced to die for their crimes have generally done terrible things. They tend not to inspire much sympathy even from those who oppose capital punishment in the abstract. Yet, occasionally, innocent people are put to death. And even those who are guilty often have complicated backstories.

The New York Times opinion section recently wrote about two especially harrowing cases. One was that of Lisa Montgomery, who was executed on Jan. 13, becoming the first woman to die at the hands of the federal government in 70 years. In 2004, Montgomery cut a baby out of the belly of a pregnant woman who was left to die. It was a horrific murder, the sort of act for which the death penalty would seem to be designed. (Incredibly, the baby lived.)

Yet Rachel Louise Snyder of American University, writing in The Times, painted a picture of Montgomery that was itself so horrendous that it’s hard to accept that justice required her execution. Repeatedly abused sexually by her father and his friends, brain-damaged by repeated blows to the head, Montgomery was a profoundly damaged woman who should have been allowed to live out her life in the custody of federal authorities.

The other case was more typical. Alfred Bourgeois was a Black man, as are a disproportionate share of those who are put to death. He was the subject of a long profile by The Times’ Elizabeth Bruenig, who witnessed his execution on Dec. 11. Bourgeois, too, had done something unimaginably awful — he slammed his 2-year-old daughter’s head repeatedly into the cab of his truck in 2002, killing her.

Yet, according to Bruenig, the reason Bourgeois was sentenced to death rather than life in prison was that he was also accused of having sexually abused his daughter. “Mr. Bourgeois’s lawyers — and there were many over time — were ultimately unable to overcome the lurid accusation,” Bruenig wrote. “Media reports inevitably focused on the appalling notion of a father raping his own toddler.” But according to Bruenig, there was good reason to believe that it never happened.

The Trump nightmare is nearly over. But it didn’t end soon enough for Lisa Montgomery, Dustin John Higgs, Alfred Bourgeois and the 10 other victims of Trump’s bloodlust. Few will mourn them. Yet their deaths in our name are an indelible stain on all of us. Let’s hope the Biden presidency represents real progress toward decency and justice — and not merely a four-year interregnum before we embrace our darker natures once again.

With Trump gone and his allies in revolt, what’s next for the media?

Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston

Previously published at GBH News.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, his detractors have complained bitterly that he was being enabled, or “normalized,” by the mainstream media. For the extremely online Resistance in particular, Twitter became a place to rail against the press for failing to point out that Trump’s every utterance, gesture and action was an outrage against decency and a threat to the republic.

“Trump has been at war with an unraveling America for years,” wrote the liberal press critic Eric Boehlert a day after Trump supporters staged a deadly riot inside the Capitol. “The parallel reality has been that the American press corps has not figured out how to deal with that frightening scenario. It hasn’t properly grappled with the idea that our commander-in-chief would purposefully try to harm America’s security and undo its democratic traditions.”

Boehlert’s not wrong. A year into Trump’s presidency, I took The New York Times to task for what I saw as its overly passive, both-sides approach, which I contrasted with The Washington Post’s sure-footedness.

And yet I find that I’ve grown impatient with these complaints, mainly because I can’t see how a different, harsher approach would have changed the course of the last four years. Never mind the 2016 campaign, which was a travesty of anti-Hillary Clinton bias that helped propel Trump into office. Overall, mainstream coverage of Trump’s time in the White House has been good enough, which is the most we can expect of a diverse, flawed institution.

Trump has been historically unpopular, yet a weirdly large minority continues to say he’s doing a good job no matter what. Take FiveThirtyEight’s average of approval ratings. The Battle of Capitol Hill sent Trump’s ratings sharply downward. But as of Tuesday afternoon, he was still at nearly 41% — pretty much where he always is.

Politically, at least, the story of the Trump years has been simple: He’s detested by a majority of the public, and they voted him out by a decisive margin the first chance they got. Explaining this isn’t rocket science.

Does anyone really believe that the mainstream media haven’t been largely negative in their coverage? Yes, there have been moments when The Times has been overly deferential, as befits a news organization that still thinks of itself as the nation’s paper of record and the presidency as an august institution. But investigative reporting by The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal have kept Trump back on his heels continuously for the past four years.

There have been a few exceptions — The Times on occasion and, sadly, NPR consistently. All too often I’ve turned on NPR and thought President George H.W. Bush was still in office and that the Democrats were working to stymie his legislative agenda. Last fall, NPR’s mild-mannered public editor, Kelly McBride, went so far as to complain that “there are moments, like the coverage of the first presidential debate, when NPR’s presentation is so understated that some in the audience feel they’ve been handed a distorted picture.” No kidding.

And yet another public media outlet that I had long criticized as a bastion of false equivalence, the “PBS NewsHour,” somehow managed to find its voice during the Trump presidency. Anchor Judy Woodruff, White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor and congressional reporter Lisa Desjardins rose to the moment, chronicling each day’s events with a calm but pointed devotion to seeking the truth and reporting it.

Through the Mueller investigation, Ukraine, impeachment, COVID-19, Trump’s blizzard of lies about the election results and now what looks very much like a failed coup attempt, mainstream coverage has, for the most part, been appropriately critical.

The one massive media failure has been something the mainstream can’t do anything about — the weaponized pro-Trump propaganda put out every day and night by Fox News, which more than anything has kept Trump’s approval rating from cratering. Fox now seems determined to get its mojo back after losing some of its audience to the likes of Newsmax and OANN, as it has switched from news to opinion at 7 p.m.

And let’s not overlook the role of Facebook and Twitter in amplifying Trumpist lies — a role with which the social-media giants are now rather ineptly coming to grips.

Longtime media observer Jay Rosen of New York University recently gave the media some credit for asserting themselves in recent months and warned that a slide back into the old paradigm of giving weight and authority to both political parties would prove disastrous.

“Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back,” he wrote, adding that the press “will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case.”

The rise of what may become a sustained right-wing resistance — a Tea Party armed with guns and brainwashed by QAnon — pretty much guarantees that the media won’t be able to slide back into their old habits once Trump is gone and the exceedingly normal President-elect Joe Biden takes his place.

As for whether the media are up to the challenge, I think we ought to take heart from the Trump era. Much of the press did what it could to hold Trump accountable and to shine a light on his repulsive words and actions. I’m hopeful that they’ll bring the same energy and sense of mission to covering whatever is coming next.