Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012
Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Was Ordway firing more about ratings — or money?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am old enough to remember Glenn Ordway as the color man back when the legendary Johnny Most was doing Celtics play-by-play.

I have nothing especially profound to say about Ordway’s departure from WEEI Radio (AM 850), a station he helped build into a sports powerhouse and that is now lagging in the ratings behind relative newcomer WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), better known as the Sports Hub. I’m only pointing out the obvious by observing that if this was all about the ratings, then no one is safe, starting with John Dennis and Gerry Callahan.

The one thing I’d keep an eye on is whether the move to dump Ordway was about money as much as it was about ratings. Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant based in Chicago, tells Matt Stout of the Boston Herald that Ordway’s salary — $500,000, down from $1 million a couple of years ago — was seriously out of whack with what local stations pay these days. Chad Finn of The Boston Globe reports that Ordway’s replacement, Mike Salk, is expected to make about $100,000.

We’ve already seen the dismantling of political talk radio in Boston. WTKK (96.9 FM) recently switched to music. WRKO (AM 680), which, like WEEI, is owned by Entercom, has cut way back over the years, to the point at which afternoon host Howie Carr is the station’s only highly paid star. The one exception to the downsizing trend on the commercial dial is Dan Rea’s evening show on WBZ (AM 1030).

Sports talk starts from a much higher ratings base than political talk, so perhaps Entercom is willing to spend some money to get WEEI back in the game. But it’s not only about ratings these days. It used to be that if you put up the numbers, the advertising would come rolling in. The ad business has changed considerably in recent years, and it’s not that simple anymore. There are plenty of non-radio options for people to listen to in their cars these days.

Ordway is talking about pursuing Internet options, and I wish him well. The challenge is that Internet radio doesn’t make money, and is generally used to promote something else. Consider the city’s two online alternative-music outlets. WFNX.com and RadioBDC exist to extend the brands of The Phoenix and the Globe’s Boston.com site, respectively. I don’t think anyone expects them to become profit-generating monsters.

As for the battle between WEEI and the Sports Hub, it could be that the most interesting sports talk you’ll hear over the next few weeks and months will be about the stations, not what’s on them.

Photo (cc) by uzi978 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Over the top with Beckett and the Red Sox

Josh Beckett

I’ve been listening to a lot of sports radio since it emerged that Josh Beckett golfed despite missing a start with an injury or near-injury or whatever it was, and I just thought I’d throw this out there:

The sports pundits in Boston have gone insane. Some more so than others, of course. Tony Massarotti and Mike Felger of the Sports Hub (98.5 FM) have been completely unhinged, while Michael Holley and Glenn Ordway of WEEI (93.7 FM) have been relatively restrained and coherent.

Overall, though, it’s gotten so ridiculous that hosts were asking callers last night if they would rather have seen Beckett get lit up than pitch the seven innings of shutout baseball that he turned in. And some said yes, damn right, they wish he’d been blown out in an inning or two.

Beckett strikes me — and most of us, I’m sure — as a pretty unlikeable guy. I don’t appreciate the way he answers questions. He was apparently the ringleader of the chicken-and-beer brigade, whose importance has been exaggerated, but which nevertheless was symbolic of a team that wasn’t much of a team. Still, the real story behind the Red Sox’ collapse last September and this spring is staring you in the face: the starting pitching totally melted down. When the starters do well, the Sox win, as we’ve seen this week.

Beckett pitches to the best of his ability (which is still pretty good, if not 2007 good), he doesn’t make excuses and, as he showed on Tuesday, he certainly doesn’t let himself get distracted.

There’s a pattern here. In 2010, Jacoby Ellsbury was injured and misdiagnosed, and the jock punditocracy questioned his heart and toughness. Last year Clay Buchholz fractured vertebrae in his back — think about that for a moment — and got the Ellsbury treatment. For good measure, John Lackey, who, yes, is loathsome in many respects, gave it his all despite needing Tommy John surgery.

Perspective, folks.

Photo (cc) by Keith Allison and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Best wishes to Glenn Ordway’s family

Bruce Allen has a statement from WEEI Radio (AM 850).