Zap! Pow! The debates need to move beyond conflict, time limits and fringe candidates

The good old days: Abraham Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Here we go again.

Four years ago the media gave an enormous boost to Donald Trump by making him the star of their multi-candidate Republican presidential debates. Despite his racist demagoguery and his utter lack of qualifications, Trump was moved to center stage and allowed to talk longer than anyone else because of his poll numbers and his salutary effect on TV ratings.

This time, at least, the Democratic candidates getting the center-stage treatment are reasonably plausible future presidents. But during CNN’s two-night extravaganza this week, and at the NBC debates last month, the same flaws were on display: an emphasis on combat over substance, a ridiculous adherence to time limits (at least NBC let Kamala Harris and Joe Biden go at it), and the elevation of fringe candidates who really have no business being there.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

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Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

GlobalPost to partner with NBC News

GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization founded by veteran Boston journalist Phil Balboni, announced a partnership earlier today with NBC News.

“When you get the opportunity to work with a world-class news organization and a powerhouse digital brand the caliber of NBC News, you jump at it,” Balboni said in a statement.

The move is a significant step forward for one of GlobalPost’s business strategies — providing international coverage to other news organizations. According to the announcement, GlobalPost reports will appear on NBC News, MSNBC and their websites.

Misplaced priorities at the Boston Police Dept.

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn

Last October the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU revealed that the Boston Police Department had been spying on left-wing activists such as the late Howard Zinn.

The police were working with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), a so-called fusion center through which the authorities could coordinate with the FBI and other agencies to find out who might be plotting a terrorist attack. Zinn, a peace activist, an elderly professor and World War II hero, was clearly someone to keep a close eye on.

Of course, we now know that at the same time the police were wasting their resources on Zinn, they were ignorant of what the FBI knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Among those putting two and two together in the last few weeks were Michael Isikoff of NBC News;  Boston journalist Chris Faraone, who produced this for DigBoston; and Jamaica Plain Gazette editor John Ruch, who wrote an analysis.

Although it would be a stretch well beyond the facts to suggest that if the police hadn’t been watching left-wing and Occupy protesters they might have caught Tsarnaev, the BPD was certainly looking in all the wrong places. The police did a good and courageous job of reacting to the Boston Marathon bombings. The issue is how they spent their time and resources in trying to prevent a terrorist attack.

Spying on the antiwar left makes no more sense today than it did in the 1960s and ’70s. Police Commissioner Ed Davis needs to take a break from giving commencement speeches in order to answer a few questions.

And while I’m on the subject of questionable law-enforcement practices, I sure hope we find out what actually happened in Florida last week. Don’t you?

O’Reilly called Nolan’s protest “outrageous”

Barry Nolan
Barry Nolan

Two years ago, the Phoenix newspapers bestowed one of their annual Muzzle Awards on Comcast for firing Barry Nolan, the Boston-based host of “Backstage,” which appeared locally on CN8.

Nolan’s apparent offense: speaking out against a decision by the National Academy of Arts & Sciences to present a coveted Governors Award to Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Nolan showed up at the Boston Emmy Awards to protest the choice.

“I got fired for saying demonstrably true things in a roomful of news people that people agreed with,” Nolan told me at the time. “Which tells you more, I think, about the times we live in than about the idiosyncrasies of somebody at Comcast.”

Now, at long last, Nolan’s story — and his $1.2 million wrongful-termination suit against Comcast — is getting a full airing. Earlier this week, the Columbia Journalism Review posted on its website a 2,700-word story by veteran Boston journalist Terry Ann Knopf. The chief revelation: a “carefully worded, lawyerly letter” from O’Reilly to Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts in which O’Reilly said he considered Nolan’s one-man crusade to be “outrageous behavior” and “a disturbing situation.” O’Reilly wrote:

We at “The O’Reilly Factor” have always considered Comcast to be an excellent business partner and I believe the same holds true for the entire Fox News Channel. Therefore, it was puzzling to see a Comcast employee, Barry Nolan, use Comcast corporate assets to attack me and FNC.

(Disclosures: Knopf, a former longtime television critic for the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, interviewed me for her story, and quotes me. Also, I have spoken twice to her media-criticism students at Boston University.)

Now, it’s true that Nolan publicly referred to O’Reilly as “a mental case.” But the fact that O’Reilly would reach out to crush a critic who was in no position to do him any real harm only serves to underscore his reputation for bullying people. It’s even more disturbing that Comcast, which is now trying to acquire NBC, would cave.

Oddly enough, Knopf’s story was originally slated to run in the Boston Globe Magazine. When Knopf interviewed me, she was on assignment for the magazine. In late July, I received a call from a Globe Magazine fact-checker. Both Knopf and Globe Magazine editor Susanne Althoff declined to comment this week when I asked them why the piece was killed.

The story of Barry Nolan and Bill O’Reilly is the story of what happens when someone goes up against two of the most powerful media corporations on the planet. In the Age of the Internet, the moguls may not be what they used to be. But they’re still moguls. And they’ve still got a lot of power.

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