President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain types of political speech lest they lose their tax exemptions. The amendment was pushed through Congress in 1954 by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was under attack by several nonprofit groups back in Texas.
Religious organizations have been complaining about the restriction for years. In 2009 I wrote a commentary in The Guardian agreeing with them, though my main concern was that the amendment prevented nonprofit news organizations from endorsing political candidates. Given that nonprofit news is becoming an increasingly important part of the media landscape, it seemed (and seems) unwise to ban such projects from engaging in what traditionally has been a vital service to their communities. I argued:
Would this mean greater influence for the likes of religious hatemongers such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins? Yes. But the whole idea behind free speech is it’s for everyone, not just those with whom you agree.
I also wrote critically about the Johnson Amendment in my 2013 book “The Wired City,” much of which was an examination of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.
I have not changed my mind. And thus I applaud our orange leader for standing up for free speech. Leaders of nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should not have to fear that if they speak out they’ll literally have to pay a penalty.
Now that congressional Republicans are shamefully dismantling the Affordable Care Act, I thought I would reprise this 2010 piece that I wrote for The Guardian shortly after President Obama signed the bill into law. (I have left the Britishisms intact.) The death of Obamacare is going to have a huge, negative effect on millions, including people with disabilities.
It was some years ago that my wife and I learned a crucial fact about living in America with a disability.
Our daughter, Rebecca, now 17, had been diagnosed at birth with achondroplasia, a genetic condition that is the most common form of dwarfism. At five months she ran into dwarfism-related breathing complications that required a tracheostomy, oxygen and home nurses for a good part of the day and night. It was a harrowing time in our lives — not to mention hers. But by the time she was three years old she was fully recovered.
One day when Becky was still a baby we found ourselves at a gathering of Little People of America, an organisation akin to Britain’s Restricted Growth Association. We were looking down — way, way down — at our soon-to-be-friend Ruth, the local LPA director. Ruth told us that Becky should focus on a career at either a large corporation or the federal government. That way, she said, Becky would never have to worry about having health insurance.
We were appalled. It’s not that working for a big company or a government agency is such a terrible fate. Ruth herself is a federal bureaucrat, and a good one. So, for that matter, was my father. But the idea that our daughter should shy away from launching a business or joining a small start-up company lest she lose her health coverage was offensive to us.
Those days are now behind us — and her. After Sunday night’s historic vote in the House of Representatives, we count Becky among the tens of millions of Americans who have been liberated. It’s long overdue.
Much of the attention over the past few days has rightly focused on the 32 million uninsured Americans who will be covered, and on new regulations that will prohibit insurance companies from denying benefits to people with pre-existing conditions.
What hasn’t been emphasised enough is that many of those folks with pre-existing conditions, like Ruth, have good jobs and great coverage — but that some of them might like to do something else with their lives. Maybe an accountant who’s recovered from cancer wants to try his hand at consulting. Maybe a mother with an autistic child has a killer idea for a restaurant. Maybe a wheelchair-using lawyer at a large firm would like to hang out her own shingle. Now there’s nothing to stop them.
It is the release of this pent-up entrepreneurialism that is among the most exciting aspects of healthcare reform. When Barack Obama has spoken about healthcare in the context of the economy, he has stressed the high cost of insuring employees. For instance, in the president’s address to a joint session of Congress last September, he described cost as the reason that “so many aspiring entrepreneurs cannot afford to open a business in the first place”. Obama was right, but he overlooked what happens when entrepreneurs themselves have medical conditions that prevent them from taking risks that could benefit society as a whole.
There are other reasons, of course, to get excited about healthcare reform, even if you’re a middle-class family with good coverage and no health issues. For many families, the ability to insure your adult children under your own plan until they are 26 is a change of enormous importance. Sticking with the personal theme of this commentary, our 19-year-old son, Tim, plans to spend the next several years establishing himself as a commercial photographer. Now he – and we – have one less thing to worry about.
We are hardly unusual. Across the country, in red states and blue, in households that voted for Obama and those who think he’s a “socialist”, folks are going to discover their lives have been made better in measurable ways. The idea that Republicans will repeal the healthcare law is laughable. Instead, as Republican strategist David Frum, a speechwriter for the second president Bush, wrote on Sunday, the GOP’s just-say-no strategy has led to a “disaster” for the party’s prospects.
What happened on Sunday restored some faith that our political leaders can work on behalf of the people who elected them. It was a great moment for Obama and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who overcame odds that seemed insurmountable following Republican Scott Brown’s surprise election to the US Senate in January.
Media observer Michael Wolff writes in USA Today about the difficulties facing any news organization that seeks to make all or most of its money from digital advertising. His example is The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper to which he and I both used to contribute.
The Guardian is proudly, aggressively digital. Its print edition is little more than a vestigial limb (especially outside the UK), and its executives refuse to implement a paywall. The result, Wolff says, is that the trust set up to run The Guardian in perpetuity is running out of money. As I wrote last week for WGBHNews.org, relying on digital advertising is a dubious proposition because its very ubiquity is destroying its value. Wolff puts it this way:
The reality is that the Guardian’s future is almost entirely dependent on advertising revenue in a medium where the price of a view heads inexorably to an increment hardly above zero. But the hope remains that, in ways yet to be imagined, some innovation will make large profits suddenly possible.
Digital paywalls are helping to bolster the bottom line at papers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe—but they are hardly a solution to the larger problems the newspaper business faces. Print advertising still brings in most of the revenue, but it’s on the wane.
Last week I visited The Philadelphia Inquirer, a major metro similar to the Globe that was recently donated to a nonprofit foundation. It’s a promising ownership model. The Inquirer still needs to break even, which is no sure thing. But local control, no pressure to meet the expectations of shareholders, and the possibility of some grant money being raised to pay for reporting projects may bring stability to the Inquirer after years of chaos. (The nonprofit New Haven Independent was the main focus of my 2013 book, The Wired City.)
One thing they’re not talking about at the Inquirer is free digital, even though the Inquirer and its sister paper, the tabloid Daily News, compete with a vibrant (though small) free digital-only project called Billy Penn, whose modest budget is paid primarily by sponsoring events. Though I remain skeptical about paywalls for reasons I laid out in my WGBH piece, the one thing I’m certain of is that the money has to come from somewhere.
One of my proudest moments as a journalist took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the spring of 2009, when Danny Schechter and I both spoke out on behalf of Yevgeniya Plakhina, a young reporter who was fighting for freedom of speech on the Internet.
Danny and I were in Almaty to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum, an annual gathering of journalists and academics that is essentially sponsored by the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
When Plakhina disrupted a panel to protest the arrest of several of her fellow activists, Danny started demanding answers. Sadly, what he wrote at the time is no longer online. But I interviewed Plakhina and wrote an article about it for The Guardian. (And in case you’re wondering what happened to Plakhina, she is alive and well, according to her Facebook page.)
Danny died of pancreatic cancer in New York on Thursday at the age of 72. The news that Danny was gone hit me hard, as it did a lot of people I know. He was someone I had admired since I was a teenager and he was the “News Dissector” on WBCN Radio in Boston. Listening to Danny and reading alternative weeklies like The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper were what led me to pursue a career in journalism.
We weren’t especially close, but I considered him a friend. I interviewed him on occasion and reviewed a few of his books. (Here is an index of the posts I wrote about him for this blog.) In reading some of the tributes to him on Facebook last night, he seemed David Carr-like in how many lives he touched. He was certainly Carr-like in his energy, fearlessness and kindness toward others.
You can read all about his career in this obituary by Don Hazen at AlterNet.
Schechter was, among many other things, perhaps the leading Western journalist in reporting on South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Which leads to another story about Danny.
A few years ago Danny and I were talking about “Sun City,” an anti-apartheid music video produced by Artists United Against Apartheid, founded by Steve Van Zandt and producer Arthur Baker. Schechter was deeply involved in the making of “Sun City.” Everyone wanted Miles Davis to be included, but no one wanted to contact the notoriously difficult musician. Schechter agreed to do it, though not, he told me, without a considerable amount of trepidation. As it turned out, Miles agreed immediately — and Danny was hugely relieved. (That and other stories about “Sun City” are told in this Wikipedia article. And if you’ve never seen “Sun City,” stop what you’re doing and click here. Link now fixed.)
Back to Kazakhstan. It was because of Danny that I was invited to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum — he’d attended previous forums, and he recommended me to moderate one panel and participate in another. It was what you might call a semi-legitimate event, held, it seemed, to bolster the image of the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is in charge of the forum every year.
Some of the journalists who attended struck me as nauseatingly obsequious to their hosts, but not Danny. Taking his cheerful defiance as my inspiration, I left the hotel (something that was not encouraged by the organizers) to interview Adil Nurmakov, an editor for Global Voices Online and a member of the political opposition.
Danny was especially delighted at the outdoor party that ended the forum. As scantily clad young women danced to loud, vaguely Kazakh-sounding music, Danny yelled in my ear, “This is a nominally Muslim country!” He kept repeating something one of the Kazakh attendees told him about the display of female flesh: “Ach! This is nothing!”
Danny’s father, Jerry, died just six years ago at the age of 90. Unlike Jerry Schechter, Danny was not granted the gift of longevity. But he packed a lot of living into his 72 years and touched many lives. Today my heart goes out to his family and friends, including his longtime business partner, Rory O’Connor.
Danny Schechter was a giant of journalism and of progressive politics, demonstrating that the two could be combined with passion and integrity. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.
Is this a new golden age of journalism? It all depends on who’s getting the gold.
For consumers of news, these are the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, we are awash in quality journalism, from longstanding bastions of excellence such as The New York Times and The Guardian to start-ups that are rising above their disreputable roots such as BuzzFeed and Vice News.
For producers of news, though, the challenge is to find new ways of paying for journalism at a time when advertising appears to be in terminal decline.
The optimistic and pessimistic views got an airing recently in a pair of point/counterpoint posts. Writing in Wired, Frank Rose gave the new smartphone-driven media ecosystem a thumbs up, arguing that mobile — rather than leading to shorter attention spans — has actually helped foster long-form journalism and more minutes spent reading in-depth articles. Rose continued:
Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting.
That Rose-colored assessment brought a withering retort from Andrew Leonard of Salon, who complained that Rose never even mentioned the difficulties of paying for all that wonderful journalism.
“The strangest thing about Rose’s piece is that there isn’t a single sentence that discusses the economics of the journalism business,” Leonard wrote, adding: “If you are lucky, you might be able to command a freelance pay rate that hasn’t budged in 30 years. But more people than ever work for nothing.”
To support his argument, Leonard linked to a recent essay on the self-publishing platform Medium by Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about Internet culture. Shirky, author of the influential 2009 blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” as well as books such as “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus,” predicted that advertising in print newspapers is about to enter its final death spiral. That’s because Sunday inserts are about to follow classified ads and many types of display ads into the digital-only world, where retailers will be able to reach their customers in a cheaper, more targeted way. Here’s how Shirky put it:
It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place.
There’s no question that print will eventually go away, though it may survive for a few more years as a high-priced specialty product for people who are willing to pay for it. The dilemma of how to pay for journalism, though, is not going away.
Free online news supported solely by advertising has not proven to be a reliable business model, although there are exceptions, including a few well-managed hyperlocals, like The Batavian in western New York, and sites that draw enormous audiences while employing very few people, like The Huffington Post.
It may turn out that the most reliable path for journalism in the digital age is the nonprofit model, with foundations, wealthy individuals and small donors picking up the tab. It’s a model that has worked well for public television and radio, and that is currently supporting online news organizations both large (ProPublica) and small (the New Haven Independent). But nonprofits are hardly a panacea. The pool of nonprofit money available for journalism is finite, and in any case the IRS has made it difficult for news organizations to take advantage of nonprofit status, as I wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013.
Journalism has never been free. Someone has always paid for it, whether it was department stores taking out ads in the Sunday paper or employers buying up pages and pages of help-wanted ads in the classifieds. Today, the most pressing question for journalists isn’t whether we are living in another golden age. Rather it’s something much blunter: Who will pay?
HACK ATTACK: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch. By Nick Davies. Faber & Faber, 448 pages, $27.
For one brief moment, it looked as though Rupert Murdoch’s international media empire might be on the brink of collapse.
In the summer of 2011, Britain was in an uproar over revelations that the Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World had hacked the voice-mail messages of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered in 2002. The scandal soon spread to other papers owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. And it nearly jumped the Atlantic, as allegations circulated that Murdoch journalists had tried to listen to cellphone messages of victims of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
As you may have heard, former state Probation Department commissioner John O’Brien and two underlings have been convicted in federal court of charges related to patronage.
In Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Harvey Silverglate and his legal assistant Daniel Schneider criticize U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and other officials for transforming behavior they don’t like — behavior that, to be sure, was grotesquely corrupt — into a federal crime, even though patronage is perfectly legal under state law. (No, neither Silverglate, Schneider nor I am impressed that this was done via a legal theory criminalizing the system O’Brien used to facilitate the patronage rather than the patronage itself.)
More: Even though I join Silverglate and Schneider in believing the legal case was dubious, the facts that were unearthed would make a jackal puke. Kudos to The Boston Globe for exposing this violation of the public trust.