By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: John Carroll

Are TV stations required to run offensive political ads? The answer is murky.

Rayla Campbell. Photo via @eoinhiggins_

A decision by WCVB-TV (Channel 5) to run a disclaimer in front of an offensive advertisement by Rayla Campbell, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, illustrates the different regulatory frameworks that exist for broadcast stations and other types of media.

Matt Stout of The Boston Globe reports that Campbell’s 30-second ad consists of an attack on Maia Kobabe’s book “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” and asks viewers if they want children reading what she describes as “child pornography.” “Gender Queer” has become a focus of the right-wing culture war against education, and Campbell has emerged as an outspoken, foul-mouthed warrior.

At her speech before the Republican State Convention earlier this year, she said that Massachusetts teachers are “telling your 5-year-old that he can go suck another 5-year-old’s dick.” Her ad isn’t nearly that bad, but there’s a context. And no, no euphemisms or brackets here at Media Nation — you deserve to know exactly what a major-party candidate for statewide office said in front of convention delegates.

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Now, if Campbell’s ad had been submitted to a print newspaper, a digital news outlet or, arguably, a cable-only station, the folks in charge would have been free to reject it. Just as she has a First Amendment right to embarrass herself, those media organizations have a First Amendment right not to promote speech they disagree with. But broadcast is different. Since the 1930s, the Federal Communications Commission has regulated the airwaves in the public interest on the grounds that broadcast frequencies are scarce, publicly owned resources. Thus, over-the-air television and radio stations must adhere to certain rules. Many of those rules, such as the fairness doctrine and the equal-time provision, have faded way over time, but some vestiges of the FCC’s regulatory regime still exist.

According to Stout’s article, WCVB’s disclaimer says that Campbell’s ad is “not endorsed” by the station, adding that “under federal law, WCVB is obligated to air the following ad without censorship.” The disclaimer also reads, “Please be advised the ad contains language and/or images that viewers may find offensive.”

Stout quotes a couple of experts, including my friend and former “Beat the Press” colleague John Carroll, who says it’s not entirely clear as to whether WCVB really did have to run the ad, calling it a “complicated issue.” Indeed it is. Joan Stewart, a lawyer who specializes in FCC rules, told Gray TV that those rules “only pertain to federal candidates” — in other words, president, vice president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

Campbell told the Globe that stations other than WCVB told her that they were restricting their ad budget to federal or gubernatorial candidates. We can’t know if that’s an accurate assessment of what she was told, but if Stewart is correct, then WCVB may have been under no obligation to run Campbell’s ad since secretary of state is not a federal office.

But wait. The FCC’s own website says that though stations are only required to provide “reasonable access” to federal candidates, they must also provide “equal opportunities” to “legally qualified federal, state, and local candidates.” Campbell definitely does fall under that category.

So it appears that the correct answer is “Who knows?” Someday, of course, broadcast is going to disappear, presumably taking the FCC’s mandates along with it. At that point I hope we can move into a better world in which all media outlets have the same First Amendment rights to accept or reject advertising as they see fit.

The Globe’s print edition shrinks a little more as the Tuesday Stories section is cut

The Boston Globe’s Tuesday print edition is getting a little smaller, per this “Editor’s Note” in today’s paper:

Starting today, Tuesday Stories will no longer appear as a separate section of the paper. The content that usually appears in that section will be spread across the rest of the Globe. Look on Page B9 for the theater directory, and Page B10 for television listings. The section’s array of narrative tales can be found throughout the remaining sections of the paper.

A perusal of last week’s Tuesday Stories section reveals exactly one ad—the movie directory—along with a house ad for a Globe-branded book about David Ortiz. That’s not the sort of situation that can continue. The Globe’s future is selling digital subscriptions. As print advertising continues to fade away, the Globe is going to have to start offering more online content that isn’t available in print.

Meanwhile, friend of Media Nation John Carroll has noticed that the Globe’s Friday Weekend section has literally gotten smaller, as the height and width have been trimmed. “Doesn’t seem like much difference,” says John, “but multiply by about 220,000 papers and you’re talking real money.”

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Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997

On Feb. 6, 1997, just after the debut of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix on the state of the city’s two major public broadcasters, WGBH and WBUR. It was the first time I’d met the host, Emily Rooney. The original is online here, but, as you will see, it’s unreadable; thus, I have reproduced it in full below. In re-reading it, I was struck by what an interesting moment in time that was, with many of the same names and issues still with us 17 years later.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

Copyright © 1997 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

GB_largeplayerEmily 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.

This is, after all, the first significant foray into local public-affairs programming for WGBH (Channels 2 and 44, plus a radio station) since 1991, when it canceled The Ten O’Clock News. The new show is a huge improvement over the one it replaces, The Group, an unmoderated roundtable discussion that rose from the ashes of the News. (“A tawdry, pathetic little show,” huffs one industry observer of The Group, widely derided as “The Grope.”) Still, Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.

It’s crucial that ’GBH get it right. With commercial broadcasters in full retreat from serious news and public affairs, public-broadcasting stations are the last redoubt. Boston’s two major public stations — WGBH-TV and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) — are among the most admired in the country. It’s by no means clear, however, that the people who run those stations are willing or able to fill the gap created by the commercial stations’ retreat into sensationalism and frivolity.

The hazards of granting anonymity, Part Infinity

fnc-20130311-scottbrownI’ll leave it to my friend John Carroll to analyze the dust-up between the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald over whether former senator Scott Brown is or isn’t still working for Fox News. (Short answer: he is.) No doubt that’s coming later today.

So just a quick observation. On Wednesday the Globe’s Joshua Miller quoted an unnamed source at Fox who told him that Brown was “out of contract,” thus fueling speculation that Brown was about to jump into New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race. It turns out, according to the Herald’s Hillary Chabot and Miller’s follow-up report, that Brown was merely between contracts, and that he’s now re-upped.

If I were Miller or an editor at the Globe, I would love to be able to point to a named source at Fox for passing along information that may have been technically accurate but was not actually true. But they can’t, and that’s one of the hazards of granting anonymity.

It’s especially dangerous with Fox. According to NPR media reporter David Folkenflik’s book “Murdoch’s World,” the fair-and-balanced folks once went so far as to leak a false story to a journalist — anonymously, of course — and then denounce him in public after he reported it.

Of course, this all leads to the political question of the moment: Does this mean Brown isn’t running for senator? Or president? Or whatever office he is thought to be flirting with this week?

Update: And here comes John Carroll.

Screen image via Media Matters for America.

Herald questions Globe over account of cab accident

In case you missed it, in part three of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team series on the Boston cab industry we learned that Globe staff member Bob Hohler got in an accident while driving a taxi in the course of his reporting:

Before his stint behind the wheel ends, the reporter will see what it means to be cheated by a taxi company and his ­passengers. And he will survive a harrowing crash — a ­not-uncommon occupational hazard — after a motorist runs a red light near Copley Square. The collision will send the reporter and his passengers to the hospital and destroy the taxicab.

Today the Boston Herald comes back with a front-page story by Matt Stout questioning the Globe’s account of the accident as well as Hohler’s hands-on reporting technique:

A Boston Globe reporter masquerading as a Hub taxi driver gave a disputed version of a two-car crash that sent him and his two passengers to the hospital in a front-page story yesterday that’s raising questions about liability and whether he misrepresented himself.

The Herald also quotes a statement from the Globe that appears to deny Hohler was under cover — it says Hohler identified himself to Boston Police and his passengers. It’s a little unclear, though, whether that was before or after the accident. [Update: The police knew ahead of time, but the cab company didn’t, though Hohler says he would have identified himself if asked.]*

Coincidentally, last week I had an opportunity to spend some time with New York University journalism professor Brooke Kroeger, who argues in her book “Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception” that such techniques have gotten an undeserved bad rap. Kroeger, among other things, is the biographer of Nelly Bly, the ultimate undercover reporter.

I am reasonably sure that John Carroll will weigh in on the latest Globe-Herald dust-up later today. Should make for interesting reading.

*More: Hohler talks about the experience in a Globe video.

Still more: John Carroll takes his first cut, but appears to be withholding his judgment for the time being.

More and more: Earlier today, I had the following Twitter exchange with the redoubtable Seth Mnookin:

Now Carroll has taken his second cut, and characterizes Mnookin and me as taking the position that the Herald’s reporting is “totally without merit.” In fact, I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I was agreeing with Mnookin as to why the Herald jumped into the fray, but I didn’t mean to imply that the tabloid was shooting nothing but blanks.

Essentially, I agree with Carroll: the Herald raised a legitimate question, but overplayed it, as is its wont.

At the Boston Herald, 30 years down the road

The Boston Herald has put together a video to mark the paper’s 30th anniversary of its current incarnation. In December 1982, Hearst nearly closed the doors before Rupert Murdoch swept in and rescued the tabloid in return for concessions from the paper’s union.

The video, featuring Herald columnists Joe Fitzgerald, Margery Eagan and Howie Carr, publisher Pat Purcell (who bought the paper from Murdoch in 1994) and others, is a self-celebration over Boston’s having remained a two-daily town — rare then and even more rare today. It’s accompanied by a column in which Fitzgerald remembers the emotional rollercoaster everyone was on.

I should add that Fitzgerald was the subject recently of a touching column by his colleague Jessica Heslam following the death of his wife, Carol. Heslam’s piece has slipped into the paid archives, but John Carroll recently excerpted parts of it. Media Nation extends its best wishes to Fitzgerald and his family.

A tale of true love — and sexual misconduct

Looks like the folks at the Boston Globe didn’t do their homework on a story of true love at Occupy Boston — and the Boston Herald nailed them on it. John Carroll has the details.

Herald taken to task on sexual-assault stories

John Carroll takes the Boston Herald to task for two stories about underage sexual-assault victims — one of whom is a 14-year-old girl described as allegedly having an “affair” with a 30-year-old school security officer (it’s called rape, people), the other depicted (but not named) in a photo in the print edition.

“Something’s out of whack at the feisty local tabloid,” writes Carroll.

A new blog by John Carroll

I want to call your attention this morning to a terrific new local blog. Campaign Outsider is written by John Carroll, formerly a fellow panelist on “Beat the Press” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) and now senior media analyst on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

John and I worked on the set-up outside Northeastern’s Au Bon Pain a couple of weeks ago. He’s off to a strong start, weighing in today with a tough piece on the Washington Post’s pay-for-play scandal.

Currently a mass-communications professor at Boston University, Carroll has a long and distinguished career in print, radio and television. I’ve already plugged Campaign Outsider into Google Reader, and suggest you do the same.

John Carroll signs on with WBUR

John Carroll, one of the sharpest media observers I know, has signed on as a commentator with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). Here’s the press release from WBUR:

“Beat the Press” panelist John Carroll will beat a familiar path back to WBUR in the role of senior media analyst starting next week, announced Sam Fleming, managing director of News & Programming at Boston’s NPR news station.

Carroll, a regular WBUR commentator for more than 10 years prior to moving to WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” in the mid ’90s, will analyze electoral and print media during the presidential race, and following the election, he will dissect issues related to advertising, politics and culture.

“Our listeners have longed missed John’s wry observations about media and advertising, particularly commercial messages peddled by candidates of all persuasions in the midst of elections,” said Fleming. “We look forward to his return.”

In addition to serving as a regular panelist on WGBH-TV’s popular Friday night program “Beat the Press,” Carroll was the executive producer of WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” for five years. An assistant professor of Mass Communication at Boston University, Carroll has won numerous national and regional journalism awards, including the RTNDA’s Edward R. Murrow award for writing, the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse award for press criticism, and multiple New England Emmys for commentary and news writing.

Over the past 20 years, the Xavier University alum has also written extensively on advertising and the media as a regular columnist for The Boston Globe and Adweek magazine. He also spent nearly two decades as a creative director and consultant in the advertising industry.

I’ve got a lot of respect for John, and I wish him well in his new venture.

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