Big news: GlobalPost, the highly respected international news organization launched in 2009 by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni, is being acquired by WGBH and will be merged with Public Radio International. The announcement is online here.
According to the announcement, the acquisition will be completed later this year. Nine of GlobalPost’s 20 full-time journalists will be offered jobs at PRI.
Journalism about human rights is both important and dangerous. That was the message at the K. George and Carolann S. Najarian Lecture on Human Rights at Faneuil Hall, endowed by the Armenian Heritage Foundation and held Thursday night.
The lecture, titled “Truth to Action: Media Freedom,” featured Ray Suarez of Al Jazeera America and PRI; Boston Globe investigative reporter Stephen Kurkjian, who’s also an adjunct professor at Northeastern University; and Thomas Mucha, editor of the Boston-based international news agency GlobalPost.
This past Friday we did something unusual on “Beat the Press” — we ran an extended interview with Phil Balboni, the president and CEO of GlobalPost, about his organization’s efforts to save the life of correspondent James Foley. Those efforts failed, and the Islamic State, the terrorist group that had been holding him, recently released a video of Foley’s beheading.
In the interview, conducted by Emily Rooney, Balboni comes across as compassionate and utterly devastated. It’s riveting television, yet it’s painful to watch. But watch.
The horrifying execution of journalist James Foley raises an uncomfortable if familiar question: Is there anything to be gained by watching the video of his beheading at the hands of an ISIS terrorist?
It’s a question that I explored 12 years ago, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was similarly murdered. I searched for the video online and found it at a website whose sick operators presented such fare for the entertainment of their disturbed viewers. I shared it with my friends at The Boston Phoenix, who — to my surprise — published several small black-and-white stills of Pearl’s beheading and provided a link to the full video. “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” the Phoenix’s outraged publisher, Stephen Mindich, wrote in an accompanying editorial.
The Phoenix’s actions created a national controversy. I defended Mindich and editor Peter Kadzis, first in the Phoenix, later in Nieman Reports. (At the time I had left the paper to write my first book, though I continued to contribute freelance pieces. My departure turned out to be temporary. And Kadzis, my editor then, is also my editor now: he is the senior editor of WGBH News.) I wrote in the Nieman piece:
Daniel Pearl didn’t seek martyrdom, but martyrdom found him. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows us the true face of evil, an evil that manifested itself unambiguously last September 11…. We turn away from such evil at our peril.
I stand by what I wrote then, but I haven’t watched the execution of Jim Foley. In contrast to the Daniel Pearl footage, the Foley video is bright and clear, in high definition. I’ve watched a bit of it, listened to him speak while kneeling in the desert; but that was all I could handle.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby takes a different view, writing, “The intrepid and compassionate reporter from New Hampshire didn’t travel to Syria to sanitize and downplay the horror occurring there. He went to document and expose it.”
I don’t disagree. But it should be a matter of choice. Gawker, among the first media outlets to post a link to the video, made sure its readers knew that what they would see if they clicked was “extremely disturbing.” By contrast, the New York Post and the Daily News published front-page images of Foley (I’ve linked to a Washington Post story, not the actual images) just before his beheading — in the New York Post’s case, barely a nanosecond before.
It’s a fine line, but I’d say Gawker was on the right side of it, and the New York tabloids were not.
At the time of his capture, Foley was freelancing for GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization. GlobalPost co-founder and chief executive Phil Balboni, in a tribute published in the Globe, wrote:
For those of us who knew Jim, the road ahead will be particularly long and trying. As a lifelong journalist, the path forward for me will be rooted in a renewed and profound respect for a profession that for Jim was not a job, but a calling.
We’ve learned a lot since the execution of Daniel Pearl. One of the things we’ve learned is that bearing witness does not necessarily lead to a good result. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have not created a safer world.
Do we have a right to view the James Foley video? Of course. Twitter, a private company that has become a virtual public utility, is heading down a dangerous road by banning images from the video. Should we watch the video as a way of witnessing unspeakable evil, as Jeff Jacoby argues? That, I would suggest, should be up to each of us.
Above all, we should honor the bravery and sacrifice of journalists like Daniel Pearl and James Foley, who take risks most of us can scarcely imagine. Let’s keep the Foley family in our thoughts, and celebrate the safe return of Peter Theo Curtis. And let’s send offer whatever good thoughts we can for Steven Sotloff, a fellow hostage of Foley’s who was threatened with death last week.
Both James Foley, a freelance journalist who was reportedly beheaded by ISIS terrorists, and Steven Sotloff, a freelancer who has been threatened with execution, worked for Boston-based news organizations — Foley for GlobalPost, Sotloff for The Christian Science Monitor.
GlobalPost is currently going with a story reporting that the authenticity of the video apparently depicting Foley’s murder still hasn’t been confirmed. The story includes this statement from GlobalPost CEO and co-founder Phil Balboni:
On behalf of John and Diane Foley, and also GlobalPost, we deeply appreciate all of the messages of sympathy and support that have poured in since the news of Jim’s possible execution first broke. We have been informed that the FBI is in the process of evaluating the video posted by the Islamic State to determine if it is authentic. … We ask for your prayers for Jim and his family.
Most journalists are like me: the biggest risk I take is that I might get overcharged for lunch. People like Foley and Sotloff — and all reporters and photographers who put themselves in harm’s way to bring back the story — are the true heroes of our craft.
More: GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott talks with WGBH Radio about Foley: “Jim had an amazing passion. He was courageous, he was fearless, and at times that caused great worry, concern and anguish for his editors. Foley took risks all over — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and definitely in Libya, where he was captured, and he was held for 45 days, and eventually released. That changed him. That changed his sense of the calculus of risk, but it didn’t change his passion for what he wanted to do.”
Photo via Northwestern University, where Foley spoke about his earlier captivity at the hands of Libyan militants.
WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) is adding a third hour of “Boston Public Radio” with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan this September, when it will be on the air weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In addition, the program — and WGBH in general — will partner with The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit venture recently begun by the Boston-based international news site GlobalPost and its co-founder and editor-at-large, Charles Sennott.
You can find the full announcement here — and my standard disclosure here.
Retired T&G editor Harry Whitin and Polar Beverages chief executive Ralph Crowley had been mentioned as possible buyers since 2009, when the New York Times Co. first put the Globe and its related properties (including the T&G) up for sale. John Henry, who bought the Globe late last year, told the T&G staff in November that he hoped to sell the paper to someone local, and that he might hang onto it if he couldn’t find the right buyer. (Henry also said he would keep the T&G’s Millbury printing plant — a facility that is likely to be used to print the Globe and handle its contract work, including the Boston Herald, after Henry sells the Globe’s current headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester. He recently confirmed that move in an interview with Boston magazine.)
Now, though, Whitin and Crowley are out, with Whitin telling the T&G’s Shaun Sutner: “For all intents and purposes, we have withdrawn from the process.”
Today’s T&G story also quotes Tim Murray, CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and the former lieutenant governor, as saying that Henry should sell the paper at a discount if that means transferring it to local owners, just as the Times Co. sold the Globe to Henry out of a sense that he would prove to be a good steward. Here’s Murray:
The fact of the matter is The New York Times gave a discount to a local buyer for The Boston Globe because they had a buyer who professed to be committed to the region, Greater Boston and the journalistic mission that newspapers play. And therefore it is not unreasonable for Mr. Henry to extend that same courtesy to the residents of Worcester in contemplating a sale.
Sutner quotes me regarding two national chains — GateHouse Media, which owns about 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, and Digital First Media, which owns several papers not far from Worcester, including The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Of the two, I think Digital First would be the more interesting choice. Headed by the bombastic John Paton (profiled in 2011 by David Carr of The New York Times), his company — which includes papers such as The Denver Post and the New Haven Register — has been trying to innovate its way out of the financial morass in which the newspaper business finds itself.
Digital First employs some of the most respected thinkers in digital journalism, including editor-in-chief Jim Brady and digital transformation editor Steve Buttry. Here is a press release on Digital First’s most recent initiative, Project Unbolt, which seeks to remove the “bolts” that still keep local journalism attached to the industrial processes that defined pre-Internet newspapers. Digital First also has a content partnership with GlobalPost, the pioneering online international news service founded five years ago by Boston media entrepreneur Phil Balboni. (I wrote about some of Paton’s early moves in New Haven in my book “The Wired City.”)
The Telegram & Gazette is a major media presence in Central Massachusetts. I still hope it ends up in local hands — or that Henry decides to keep it. But if it’s going to be sold to a national chain, the staff and the community could do worse than to be served by a company that is trying to revive the business of local news.