Stephen Glass — yes, that Stephen Glass, of “Shattered Glass” infamy — has been touched by God. I don’t know how else to put it. No spoiler alerts, so just read this.
Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.
Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”
Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.
Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.
The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.
Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.
1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.
2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.
3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.
4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.
5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.
6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.
7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.
8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)
9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.
10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.
Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
The New York Times goes deep on The New Republic’s latest reinvention. I wrote a couple of pieces for the venerable magazine many years ago, and I wish it well. But I also wish Times reporter Christine Haughney had explored a conflict of interest in TNR’s relaunch: the participation of new owner Chris Hughes in a major interview with President Obama.
I don’t necessarily begrudge Hughes’ wanting to play a role on the editorial side of TNR. It’s now his magazine, and previous owner Marty Peretz was a legendary interferer — sometimes for better, usually for worse. TNR is a small place, and it’s unrealistic to expect the publisher to exercise the same sort of restraint as, say, the publisher of a major daily newspaper.
But Hughes, the 29-year-old co-founder of Facebook, is also the “former online campaign adviser” to the president, as Haughney puts it — and by all accounts the key person in building Obama’s 2008 online presence. In April 2009, Fast Company ran a long profile headlined “How Chris Hughes Helped Launch Facebook and the Barack Obama Campaign.”
The TNR interview with Obama was conducted jointly by Hughes and the magazine’s editor, Franklin Foer. So what kind of hard-hitting questions did Hughes ask? Here they are:
Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?
Have you looked back in history, particularly at the second terms of other presidents, for inspiration?
You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. The hope being that, once you were reelected, they would seek to do more than just block your presidency. Do you feel that you’ve made headway on that?
You inspired a lot of people in your first presidential campaign, and with your books, by talking about a new kind of politics. And now, four years later, it’s a time in Washington that’s characterized by nastiness more often that not. How do you reconcile those two things four years in?
It seems as if you’re relying more on executive orders to get around these problems. You’ve done it for gun control, for immigration. Has your view on executive authority changed now that you’ve been president for four years?
The last question is about Syria. I wonder if you can speak about how you personally, morally, wrestle with the ongoing violence there.
A not-uninteresting group of questions. To be fair, I’ve included all of them so that you could see the meaty as well as the fawning. And Hughes and Foer elicit substantive answers from the president. Nevertheless, given Hughes’ background, I found myself asking if he might have been tougher if he were interviewing a president he hadn’t worked for.
This is no more than a minor misstep. The real challenge facing TNR is that it is trying to carve out a niche in a world that has utterly changed since it was — at least in the movie “Shattered Glass” — “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” The Internet has made all but a tiny handful of political opinion magazines irrelevant.
Getting TNR back into the game will be a daunting task. Hughes just made it slightly more daunting. I hope he comes to realize that himself.
It’s good to see that Ron Paul’s dalliance with racists and anti-Semites is getting another airing. The Weekly Standard is recycling James Kirchick’s splendid New Republic article of four years ago, in which we learned that newsletters with names like Ron Paul’s Freedom Report and the Ron Paul Political Report were filled with gems such as a reference to Martin Luther King Day as “Hate Whitey Day.”
Paul, naturally, claimed to know nothing.
I’ve never seen him that impassioned on his own behalf. And if Bill Clinton was more intent on whacking Bush than McCain, Kerry made up for it. He even poked fun at himself as he ran through a litany of McCain flip-flops.
Last week I linked to Spencer Ackerman’s report for Radar alleging that the real scandal involving ex-“Baghdad Diarist” Scott Beauchamp was that The New Republic had failed to stand behind Beauchamp’s accounts of loathsome behavior on the part of U.S. troops (himself included) in Iraq.
Today the story gets even more interesting. The blog Moon of Alabama observes that an Army sergeant who’s been implicated in killing four blindfolded, handcuffed Iraqi detainees and then dumping their bodies in a canal has exactly the same name as a sergeant who had denounced Beauchamp’s reporting as fiction — First Sgt. John E. Hatley.
I have no idea who or what Moon of Alabama is. But the story about the alleged murders is in today’s New York Times, and all Mr. or Ms. Moon has done is connect the dots.
Remember the Scott Beauchamp scandal? Beauchamp was the soldier who wrote a series of essays for The New Republic documenting some pretty atrocious behavior involving him and his comrades who were serving in Iraq, including running over dogs and playing with a human skull.
As you may recall, Beauchamp was discredited after he admitted to “exaggerations and falsehoods.” Except that Spencer Ackerman, in an explosive story for Radar, now says Beauchamp never made any such admission, and that TNR editor Franklin Foer threw Beauchamp overboard in an attempt to get the magazine’s right-wing critics off his back.
Ackerman admits that there’s bad blood between him and Foer, and that Foer would not be interviewed for the Radar piece. But Ackerman has a lot of on-the-record material backing up his claims. Fascinating stuff.
As I wrote for the Guardian a year ago this week, the Beauchamp scandal gave war supporters an excuse to ignore a dauntingly well-documented report on ugly behavior by American troops that had been published by The Nation.
Now it looks as though the real Beauchamp scandal may have been that The New Republic allowed his reputation to be sacrificed for no good reason.
Nothing on the TNR Web site so far.
My latest commentary for The Guardian is up. This week I write about conservative outrage over The New Republic’s dubious reporting on American misbehavior in Iraq — and the right’s total silence on The Nation’s far better documented reporting on the same subject.