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Should the Globe have used private data to try to expose a toxic commenter?

Boston City Hall. Photo (cc) 2005 by Ken Lund.

A story in The Boston Globe reports that a caustic online commenter appears to be posting “vicious Internet attacks” against Mayor Michelle Wu and others from a city email address and a shared subscription used by city councilors and staff members. The comments have been published under the handle “Interested Party.”

Globe reporter Emma Platoff writes that “the comments posted by the Interested Party account stand out because they appear to be authored by one or more of those public officials’ colleagues — members of the City Council or council employees — according to account details and people with knowledge of the subscription.”

It’s not the first time I’ve seen a news outlet do this. The one that stands out in my mind involved a Haverhill city councilor who was exposed years ago by the local newspaper. I’ll get to that. But, first, more on the Globe’s story.

Although the Globe doesn’t have enough information to identify the person (or persons) behind the comments, Platoff appears to have used internal information provided by every user (“account details”) in order to get as far as she did. If you look at comments on the Globe’s website (or just about any other website), you won’t find any email addresses — that’s information you provide when you sign up, but it doesn’t appear alongside your screen name. Likewise, the Globe almost certainly has access to each commenter’s IP (internet protocol) address, which can help the paper locate where a user is based.

Nor does the Globe warn users that it reserves the right to use information commenters provide in order to track them down. If you try to post a comment, you’ll find guidelines that speak to what’s allowed and what isn’t; but there’s nothing about the possibility of being outed. (The guidelines refer not to the Globe but to its free sister site, Boston.com. I’m not sure whether that means the rules haven’t been updated for years or if it’s simply an indication that the same rules are in effect at both places.) Another message advises you, “This comment may appear on your public profile.” But when you click on the “Public Profile FAQ,” you hit a 404.

The question is whether it’s ethical to use information that the Globe’s subscribers freely give the paper in order to track them down. Users have a right to expect that their information won’t be used to violate their privacy. Platoff wasn’t able to expose “Interested Party,” but she’d clearly like to. Is that fair?

All of that brings me to the Haverhill situation I mentioned up top. In 2008, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover reported that a Haverhill city councilor named James Donahue had posted comments on the paper’s website under at least 38 different screen names, an accusation that Donahue partly confirmed, though he claimed that some of the comments had actually been posted by someone else. As I wrote at the time, Donahue’s activities included lambasting the mayor and some of his colleagues. The Tribune apparently used the IP address attached to Donahue’s multitudinous screen names in order to locate him and to figure out that all those screen names were coming from the same computer. The Tribune defended its actions in an editorial:

It is not the general practice of this newspaper to seek the identity of those who comment on stories, although there is no explicit guarantee of anonymity. Virtually all the management of the comments section of the online edition is aimed at removing posts that are profane, racist or personal attacks.

However, one of the forum moderators noticed a pattern of posts under dozens of different names, and then discovered that they had all come from the same computer address. When it became clear that they were coming from the computer of an elected public official, it became our obligation to let the public know.

The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.

I was uncomfortable with the Tribune’s actions, and I said so, writing: “It seems to me that the paper has chosen to humiliate Donahue for doing something the paper itself implicitly invited him to do, and that it used information available to no one else.” But many of my commenters disagreed with me and sided with the Tribune, arguing — as the paper itself had — that Donahue’s status as a public official overrode any expectations of online privacy that he might have had.

Which brings me back to the Globe and “Interested Party.” Arguably, there is a public-interest reason to try to expose the commenter. The comments are being posted by a public official or officials, whether they are members of the city council or employees. It’s a story, and it will be interesting to see whether the Globe is able to take the next step and name names. It makes me a little queasy, as The Eagle-Tribune’s actions did 15 years ago. On balance, though, I think my commenters were right in 2008 and that the Globe is right now.

A final observation: The Globe’s comments are a toxic-waste pit. The paper shouldn’t have them unless it’s willing to screen all of them before they’re posted. If that’s impossible, then get rid of them. Plenty of news organizations have, and no one seems to miss them.

City Hall closes out 200-plus public records requests, citing its own lassitude

Boston City Hall. Photo (cc) 2009 by Marissa Babin.

The state’s weak public-records law, combined with the city of Boston’s lax response to requests for documents, has led to 221 such requests being terminated. Sean Philip Cotter reports in the Boston Herald:

Boston’s records office cited its own inaction in closing 221 public records requests in total, the city now says, going back to March 29, 2021, jumping the total number up significantly from what the office originally offered.

The city is taking the position that because it never responded to previous requests, those seeking them must no longer want them. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told me by email:

Up until Cotter’s reporting, Boston had a policy of automatically closing out public records requests based on its own inaction. Essentially the city was saying in at least 200 cases, because we’ve taken too long to get back to you, we’re going to assume you no longer want the records you requested. That’s one way to shut up people looking for information.

Needless to say, this is not a good look for Mayor Michelle Wu or Shawn Williams, the city’s records access officer. Nor is it especially new. Back in June, Colman Herman reported for CommonWealth Magazine that 98 public records appeals had been filed with the secretary of state’s office “because the filers were dissatisfied with the city’s responses or lack of a response.” The secretary of state sided with the filers on 90 occasions and with the city just eight times. But don’t expect much to happen — the state’s public records law is among the weakest in the country.

According to Cotter’s article in the Herald, Wu has promised to do better, with her press office saying that the city ended its practice of automatically closing out public records requests earlier this summer. “The city has stressed that transparency, which Wu campaigned on, is a top priority,” Cotter wrote.

Wu will mark her first year as mayor next month. It’s time for her to start making good on her promise.

Healey’s ascension coincides with the dispiriting collapse of politics in Mass.

Maura Healey. Photo (cc) 2015 by Charlie Baker. Yes, that’s what the photo credit says. Yes, I realize that’s Baker on the left-hand side of the frame.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz’s withdrawal from the gubernatorial race on Thursday underscores the astonishing collapse of politics in Massachusetts. This is a state where politics has traditionally been a year-round sport. In the past, an open governor’s seat would have attracted multiple candidates. Instead, Attorney General Maura Healey will run uncontested for the Democratic nomination and will probably beat either of the two Republicans who are running.

The Axios Boston headline this morning puts it this way: “AG Healey on track to be Massachusetts’ first elected female governor.” In June. Nearly five months before Election Day.

Contrast what’s happening today with 1990, when Gov. Michael Dukakis retired. Three prominent Democrats sought the nomination — Boston University president John Silber, Attorney General Frank Bellotti and Lieutenant Gov. Evelyn Murphy. Although Murphy ended up withdrawing, Silber beat Bellotti in a closely fought race. Silber, in turn, was defeated by former federal prosecutor Bill Weld, who won the Republican nomination by beating House Republican leader Steve Pierce.

More recently, in 2006, a relatively unknown former Justice Department official, Deval Patrick, won the Democratic primary for governor with less than 50% of the vote against businessman Chris Gabrieli and Attorney General Tom Reilly. That November, Patrick defeated Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and several independent candidates, the most prominent of whom was the late businessman Christy Mihos.

So how did Healey end up running unopposed for the Democratic nomination? There are some unique factors at play. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker took his time in announcing he wouldn’t seek another term, which gave a significant advantage to the well-known, well-funded Healey. Former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh decided he’d rather stay in Washington than run for governor.

I worry, though, that we’re all losing interest in politics. Healey is first-rate, smart, personable and progressive. After her, though, who? U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley? Boston Mayor Michelle Wu? Maybe. Both are at a relatively early stage of their political careers — especially Wu — so perhaps we just have to give it time.

As for the Republicans, who have produced a slew of governors over the years to act as a moderating force against the dominant Democrats, the situation is sad indeed. Two Republicans are running for governor this year. One, state Rep. Geoff Diehl, is a full-blown Trumper. The other, businessman Chris Doughty, is trying to position himself as a Baker-style moderate — but he opposes abortion rights and has taken stands that suggest he supporters deeper tax cuts than Baker would support.

For those of us who’ve been following Massachusetts politics for years, it’s a dispiriting time. I hope it’s just temporary.

False rumors about Wu’s mental health recall attacks on Michael Dukakis in 1988

Then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1987. Photo (cc) City of Boston Archives.

Today’s Boston Globe story about the right-wing whispering campaign suggesting that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has suffered from serious panic attacks while in office (there is no evidence) calls to mind the rumors about Michael Dukakis’ mental health that circulated during his 1988 presidential campaign.

Dukakis’ Republican opponent, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, helmed one of the dirtiest campaigns in the modern era. Everyone remembers the racist Willie Horton ad, but there were also rumors — grounded in nothing — that Dukakis suffered from depression.

As recalled in this retrospective by Dylan Scott in Stat News, President Ronald Reagan got in on the act, pushing into the mainstream a conspiracy theory that emanated from LaRouchie right:

In early August, in those pre-Twitter days, Reagan made the gossip front-page news. The president said at a White House press conference, in response to a question about Dukakis, that he didn’t want to “pick on an invalid.”

Reagan quickly apologized, but the story was off and running. The New York Times and Washington Post wrote editorials denouncing the attacks. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald published lengthy stories about the rumors and their source.

Dukakis’ 17-point polling lead over Bush collapsed, and, of course, Bush went on to win that November. As Dukakis said, “you don’t drop eight points in a week for nothing.”

The claim may have resonated because there was just enough there for the conspiracists to dig into. Dukakis’ wife, Kitty Dukakis, had long suffered from depression, and, as the Stat piece noted, biographies of Dukakis said that “he had been unhappy after his brother died in 1973 and, again in 1978, after he lost his reelection for governor.” Nothing unusual about that, of course.

So, too, with Wu. Her mother has struggled with mental illness. And in January the Globe published a story that included this line: “A decade ago, when Wu first mentioned to someone outside her close circle that she was considering a run for office, she had a panic attack; she had to walk across the room and crouch down to calm herself.” In other words, years ago and hardly unusual behavior — and also a long way from landing in the hospital, as the current rumors claim.

The false rumors about Wu have almost but not quite broken into the mainstream, according to the Globe’s Emma Platoff. Greg Hill of WEEI Radio (93.7 FM) mentioned them sympathetically, perhaps unaware that there was nothing to them. Platoff also cites a column in late January by the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld, who wrote: “Unfortunately for the Harvard-educated Wu, there isn’t an Ivy League seminar or class to learn how to grapple with these anxiety-inducing problems.” But having read Battenfeld’s column in its entirety, I don’t agree that he was making any reference to the rumors.

One unanswerable question about all this is whether a major media outlet like the Globe should amplify the rumors. Platoff addresses that:

There are those who believe this Globe story will worsen the problem. Experts say it can be a mistake to mention this kind of misinformation in a reputable newspaper; that even debunking a rumor grants it oxygen. But as this false claim spreads through the city’s power centers, it has already leaked into public discourse. And the mayor, who has been open about her mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, was glad to correct the record, saying it was important to call out both mental health stigma and misinformation.

She also quotes Wu herself, who says it’s better to address the rumors head-on than to let them fester. “I want to be transparent about the presence of these tactics, even today, because we need to acknowledge it to be able to change it,” Wu told Platoff. “It does feel connected to larger trends in politics and international politics: If you just repeat something that’s false enough times, at least you can sow a little doubt in the broader public’s mind. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.”

I don’t know whether putting it out there is a good idea or not. As Wu herself acknowledges, it’s already partly out there, so perhaps it’s better to address it head-on. Still, people are going to believe what they want to believe. We are long past the time when facts made any difference. We weren’t even there in 1988.

Mayor Wu takes a few cautious steps toward limiting neighborhood protests

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Photo by Lex Weaver / The Scope

Loud, angry protests outside the homes of elected officials have become a staple of the uncivil times in which we live. And Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is taking a few cautious steps toward doing something about it.

As my GBH News colleague Adam Reilly reports, Wu has filed an ordinance that would ban protests outside individual residences between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. — four fewer hours than the current law allows, which runs from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Under the new hours, Wu would have left for work before the anti-vaccine, anti-mask protesters could arrive outside her Roslindale home, where they have been harassing her family and her neighbors.

“We are putting reasonable parameters around the time of day,” Reilly quoted Wu as saying, “because this is where it really comes up against quality of life, and ensuring that we are supporting residents in our neighborhoods to be able to have the health and well-being of getting sleep at night and in the morning.”

I fully support the First Amendment right to protest, and this is a troublesome issue. It seems to me that the protesters ought to have the decency to picket at her public appearances rather than at her home, but decency has little to do with it. Loud, obnoxious protests outside Gov. Charlie Baker’s home in Swampscott may even have played a role in his decision not to seek re-election, though Baker himself has not said one way or the other if that’s the case.

As Adam notes, another, more draconian restriction is being considered on Beacon Hill. State Rep. Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican, has proposed that protesters be banned from doing there thing less than 100 yards from an elected official’s home.

Over the weekend, Baker told Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) that the 100-yard limit might be a good idea. “We have neighbors,” Baker said. “For our neighbors who never ran for office, never got elected to anything, this was a nightmare.” (And what’s up with The Boston Globe, which credited an interview that Wu gave to WBUR’s “Radio Boston” program but dismissively described Baker’s appearance on “Keller at Large” as “a television interview”?)

As I wrote recently, Mayor Wu has faced two First Amendment tests in her brief time in the corner office. Fortunately, she and her staff appeared to back off from “media guidelines” that were intended to keep the press at a distance as city workers cleared the homeless encampment at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

The protest issue, though, is a knottier one. I think she’s wise to take this in small steps. If the 9-to-9 ordinance helps, great. If not, then more drastic measures may be called for.

The First Amendment and Mayor Wu: What press restrictions and vile demonstrations have in common

Photo of protesters by Saraya Wintersmith for GBH News

Previously published at GBH News.

Over the past week, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has been caught up in two seemingly unrelated controversies. What they have in common is that they touch on important First Amendment issues.

In the first instance, her office sent out a poorly worded advisory asking that reporters keep their distance from homeless people while city workers removed their encampment at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. In the second, hate-spewing demonstrators have been gathering in front of Wu’s house in Roslindale to protest a requirement that city employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 and that restaurants and other businesses mandate vaccines.

The “media guidelines” were sent out on Jan. 11, the day before the city cleared the area around Mass. and Cass. Reporters and photographers were “advised” to stay 50 feet away from individuals; to refrain from capturing images of individuals’ faces; and to “allow enough space for outreach workers to engage with individuals in private.”

The 50-foot request was later amended to 10 feet — an improvement, but still not enough for reporters to walk up to people and ask if they’d like to be interviewed. “As soon as I saw the guidelines, I emailed the press office and said ‘You can’t tell us how to report,’” Boston Globe columnist and associate editor Adrian Walker wrote in a public Facebook comment.

Kelly McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, also took a dim view of the advisory.

“I’m always wary when government officials start telling the press how to behave ethically,” she said in an emailed comment. “This may sound shocking, but sometimes government folks are more interested in avoiding accountability for their actions and also making themselves look good than they are in nurturing a free press that serves the public interest.”

Despite liberal use of the word “please,” it’s unclear whether City Hall intended the guidelines to be mandatory; the mayor’s press office declined to comment. In any case, it doesn’t appear that there were any serious efforts at enforcement, as reporters were able to interview homeless people while outreach workers were moving through the area.

“City officials came over to me and asked me not to take pictures of people’s faces, which I wouldn’t have done anyway without permission but I appreciated — they also told me to back up and give space, but mostly I was fine interviewing people,” my GBH News colleague Tori Bedford told me by email. She added: “I think the intention was to prevent the callous treatment of people that occurred last time, but it neglected how the press acts as an accountability agent to witness any callous treatment by the city and it’s not the city’s place to tell us how to do our jobs on a public street.”

As Bedford said, there have been reports of journalists acting insensitively toward homeless people during previous operations at Mass. and Cass. But it’s crucial that the media be allowed access to make sure that city workers are treating people with respect as well. Besides, the encampment was on public property, and attempting to restrict where reporters could go and what they could do was a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.

Paul Bass, the editor and founder of the New Haven Independent, made another important point in a public comment: the guidelines denied agency to the very people the city was attempting to protect. “I agree such rules are outrageous,” he wrote. “They are also patronizing and controlling: homeless people, like anyone else, have the right to decide if they want to tell their story!”

Veteran political analyst Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) said Mayor Wu’s advisory appeared to go beyond anything he had seen from Mayors Tom Menino or Marty Walsh.

“Without knowing for sure, I suspect that they didn’t want any embarrassing feedback from these interactions to be broadcast,” Keller said. “It had the whiff of something drawn up by a PR or a press aide with the mayor’s image and the image of her administration foremost in mind. Now, that may well be their job as they see it, but this is not the right time or situation.”

Not to make too much of this — despite the admonition to keep 10 feet away, the media were not prevented from doing their jobs. But if city officials had problems with the way individual journalists had behaved on previous occasions, they should have dealt with them directly rather than send out a blanket set of rules.

***

How much abuse should elected officials have to put up with when they’re at home with their families? In recent days, a small group of bullhorn-wielding protesters has been gathering in front of Mayor Wu’s house in Roslindale to denounce her vaccination mandate. Wu lives in a two-family home with her husband, her two children and her mother.

As Wu tweeted over the weekend, the rhetoric has become increasingly ugly. “They’ve shouted on megaphones that my kids will grow up without a mom bc [because] I’ll be in prison,” she said. “Yesterday at dinner my son asked who else’s bday [birthday] it was bc the AM chant was ‘Happy birthday, Hitler.’”

In an ideal world, protesters would restrict their activities to public venues and events and leave political figures alone when they’re home. But social mores are breaking down and incivility is on the rise. And it’s not just Wu. Gov. Charlie Baker’s home in Swampscott has been the site of multiple protests. There has even been speculation that the protests were among the reasons Baker decided not to seek a third term. Certainly Wu’s and Baker’s neighbors didn’t sign up for such abuse.

The challenge is that any action against such demonstrations would clash with First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly and petitioning for the redress of grievances. The protesters are, after all, on public streets.

State Rep. Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican, has filed legislation to ban demonstrations within 100 yards of an elected official’s home. If such a bill were to become law, there’s little doubt that it would face a constitutional challenge. But it’s also possible that a narrowly drawn statute focusing on noise and intrusiveness would pass muster as a content-neutral time-place-and-manner restriction, according to the noted civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate.

The alternative would be to move high-profile politicians into official residences away from residential neighborhoods. That would be a shame. It strikes me as a good thing that our leaders live among us, even if the benefit is mainly symbolic. Sadly, that may no longer be possible.

Protests outside elected officials’ homes will lead to actions none of us want

We don’t have official residences for elected leaders in Massachusetts, and that’s a good thing. I like it that Gov. Charlie Baker still lives in Swampscott, where he was once a selectman, and that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu lives in a two-family home in Roslindale with her husband, children and mother.

Sadly, the breakdown of civility in our society is making it untenable. Bullhorn-wielding anti-vaxxers have been protesting outside Wu’s house, and they’re becoming increasingly hateful. Have a look at what Wu tweeted this morning:

It’s happened to Baker, too. Last September, climate-change protesters were arrested after they chained themselves to a pink boat labeled “Climate Emergency” that they had brought with them.

Even if you believe there’s nothing wrong with verbally abusing elected officials outside their homes, it’s certainly not something their neighbors signed up for.

This is going to lead to actions that none of us want. Heavy security is just a start. The Legislature is considering a bill that would outlaw protests within 100 yards of an elected official’s home. That’s almost certainly unconstitutional, as it would ban legally protected speech on public streets and sidewalks.

Or we could see a move toward official residences that are not in residential areas. The city of Boston already owns the Parkman House, near the Statehouse. If I’m remembering correctly, Mayor Kevin White lived there for at least part of his time in office.

The best solution would be for protesters to decide that elected officials’ homes are off limits. I doubt that’s going to happen, though. And so, inevitably, politicians are going to decide they have to remove themselves from normal life even more than they already are. That’s not good for them, or for us.

Mayor Wu’s Mass and Cass coverage guidelines violate press freedoms

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu campaigns in 2021. Photo by Lex Weaver via Global Observer, a publication of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

The day before city workers were set to dismantle the tents occupied by homeless people at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s press office sent out some instructions to members of the media: keep 50 feet away; don’t take photos or videos of people’s faces; allow outreach workers to talk with people in private.

Later on, the 50-foot rule was amended to 10 feet.

The area around Mass and Cass, it should go without saying, is public property. The media are free to do what they like. They should act ethically, of course, but that’s on the reporters and photographers, not on the city. And Wu’s rules go beyond basic ethics and decency. Why shouldn’t the press be able to get close enough to interview people as long as they’re not interfering with city workers? Why shouldn’t they be able to take photos and shoot video of people who’ve given their consent?

Bad move by the mayor. We’ll see how it plays out.

Are newspaper endorsements fading away?

Following The Boston Globe’s odd decision to run its Michelle Wu endorsement in the Saturday print edition rather than in the big Sunday paper, I discussed newspaper endorsements with Michael Jonas of CommonWealth magazine. Are they fading away? Are they still relevant? When and why do they matter?

The Globe gets on the Wu train

No surprise, but The Boston Globe editorial board has endorsed Michelle Wu for mayor over Annissa Essaibi George.

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