Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012
Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

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.

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Globe, Herald at center of multimedia sports battle

Aaron Hernandez
Aaron Hernandez

The week before Labor Day is usually a slow one, but the last few days have featured some hot Globe-on-Herald action (by proxy). If you haven’t been following it, here’s your guide to catching up.

On Tuesday, Rolling Stone published an article offering new information about former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, who faces first-degree murder charges. I haven’t read the article, but you can. According to various summaries, including this one, Hernandez reportedly carried a gun at all times, used angel dust and did not get along with Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

So where’s the Globe-Herald angle? The article was written by Paul Solotaroff and Ron Borges — the latter being a former Boston Globe sportswriter who now toils at the Boston Herald.

Borges’ contribution prompted a tough blog post on Wednesday by Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch. His headline — “Plagiarist Ruins Perfectly Good Rolling Stone Feature” — sets the tone for what follows. Borges, as those of you without long memories might not know, left the Globe under a cloud in 2007 after he was found to have committed something akin to plagiarism in his Sunday football notes column.

I wrote about Borges’ departure at the time, and, as you will see, I thought he got a bad rap, given that the Sunday notes columns produced by him and other beat reporters included this disclaimer: “material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.” Is it really plagiarism when you announce in advance that you’re lifting other people’s work?

Allen’s diatribe turned out to be just the opening act. On Thursday, the Globe’s Ben Volin went after the Rolling Stone article in a story that carried the deceptively mild headline “What Rolling stone got right, wrong on Aaron Hernandez.” Though Volin allows that Solotaroff and Borges did “a thorough job of recounting Hernandez’s sordid past,” he goes on to say that “the story also is filled with sensationalism, hearsay, convenient fact-bending, and even one blatant falsity.”

Whoa. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it in the Globe. And though I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy or fairness of the case that Volin lays out, it makes for a pretty entertaining read. I’d love to see Borges respond in the Herald.

(Both the Globe and the Herald today report Patriots president Jonathan Kraft’s refutation of the Rolling Stone article.)

As if this weren’t enough, the Globe on Thursday also ran a front-page story on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850) in the face of a challenge by upstart WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), better known as “The Sports Hub.” The article was written by business reporter Callum Borchers, a terrific young journalist who I had the privilege of getting to know when he was part of Northeastern’s graduate journalism program a couple of years ago.

The Herald angle is that Borchers devotes a good chunk of his story to WEEI’s “Dennis & Callahan” show, and Gerry Callahan is a Herald columnist. On its website, the station emphasizes the fact that Borchers is a former WEEI intern, something that was not disclosed in the article. You can hear Callahan and Borchers mixing it up on the air in this clip.

Should the Globe have noted that Borchers was once an unpaid summer intern at the station he was writing about? I don’t think disclosure ever hurts, but in this case I’m not sure what it would have added. There is no current conflict. I’ve written critically about many news organizations where I’ve applied for jobs, starting with the Globe and the Herald. (I even had a three-day tryout at the Herald in 1988.) I’m noting that here not by way of disclosure, but to point out how ridiculous it can get.

In any event, as with Borges, I hope Callahan will use his Herald column to respond. Because the three leading topics in Boston, as always, are sports, politics and revenge — with revenge being the most interesting of all.

More: “Dennis & Callahan” third wheel Kirk Minihane unloads on Borchers and the Globe.

Photo (cc) by Jeffrey Beall and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Hockey, race and the ghosts of Boston’s past

Joel Ward in 2011

No rational person thinks the racist tweets that followed the Bruins’ loss at the hands of Joel Ward on Wednesday represented any more than a tiny, ignorant minority of hockey fans (see this, this and this).

But there’s still something uncomfortable about hockey and race, especially in a city whose racial history is as troubled as ours. (And no, we don’t know how many of those offensive tweets came from Boston.)

The fact is that there has always been a certain subset — subspecies? — of hockey fan who likes the sport in part because nearly all the players are white. I grew up here, and I heard plenty to that effect when I was a teenager, and even in my 20s.

It’s no accident that the Bruins of Bobby Orr (two championships) were far more popular than the Celtics of Bill Russell (11). Or that the Celtics finally became the toast of the town after the face of the franchise turned white, first with Dave Cowens and later with Larry Bird.

Of course, Boston is not the same city today that it was in the 1970s and ’80s. The Celtics of recent years, led by three star African-American players and a black coach, have been as loved as any team in Boston. Even the Red Sox have put their ugly past behind them.

But there’s a context for hockey that doesn’t exist in other, more integrated sports. Among other things, Boston Herald writer Ron Borges couldn’t have made his non-racist but stupid observation about Tim Thomas with any other sport because getting beat by a black player would have been entirely unremarkable.

And the mouth-breathing racist fans who tweeted the “N”-word would have long since come to terms with minority athletes (or stopped watching) if we were talking about any sport other than hockey.

It’s not the NHL’s fault that there are so few black hockey players — it’s a function of geography and culture. Indeed, Major League Baseball itself has very few African-American players today, a demise that has been masked in part by the rise of Latino players of color.

Nor does this have anything to do with the vast majority of hockey fans. I don’t like hockey, but I know plenty of people who do. And they are good, decent people who follow the Celtics, the Patriots and the Red Sox just as avidly as they do the Bruins.

But race is an issue in hockey in ways that it just isn’t in other sports. And when you combine that volatility with Boston’s reputation, what happened this week was perhaps inevitable.

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

Ron Borges’ departure

As you probably already know, Globe sportswriter Ron Borges has quietly left the paper. That means his two-month suspension for lifting chunks of a column from the Tacoma News Tribune will stand as the last word on his long career at 135 Morrissey Boulevard.

David Scott, who’s been blogging prodigiously on this (see this and this), invites me “to comment on the significance of the botched Borges bye-bye.” Well, I don’t know. At the time of Borges’ suspension, I wondered if he’d ever come back. I guessed he would, since the Globe has been his platform for various broadcasting and outside writing assignments. I guessed wrong — hardly the first time.

Readers of Media Nation know that I’m an exceedingly narrow sports fan. Since Borges didn’t cover the Red Sox, I’ve read very little of his stuff over the years. I do recommend this John Gonzalez profile of Borges in Boston Magazine, which includes the following hilarious passage:

Boston sports junkies might be surprised to hear this. Dan Shaughnessy has always been the guy they’d most like to dump into the harbor. But over the past few years, Borges seems to have supplanted his fellow Globe scribe as the most vilified writer in town. “We should have one of those Globe polls — ‘Who do you hate more?'” Shaughnessy says. “I’ve challenged Borges to see who could get out the vote. It would be close. And it would be a lot more interesting than who’s going to win the MVP.”

Actually, it would be a lot less interesting than to see who’s going to win the MVP, but that’s Shaughnessy: a sportswriter who doesn’t seem to like sports all that much.

One aspect of Borges’ meltdown continues to trouble me. You cannot judge whether or not he committed plagiarism without taking a close look at the disclosure that ran with his football notes column, as well as with the notes columns of several other Globe sportswriters: “[M]aterial from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.”

How do you hang someone out to dry for lifting material when there was a huge, blinking sign telling readers that the material they were about to read was at least partially — yes, lifted from other sources? Of course Borges should have rewritten the stuff he was taking, but it’s not as though he’d claimed that it was the fruit of his own labors. To this day, I doubt that he thinks he did anything wrong. (Just to be clear: He did.)

The most fully reported piece on Borges’ departure is by Jessica Heslam, in the Herald’s Messenger Blog. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Borges — who actually returned to the Globe two weeks ago — realized that his outside work was not going to disappear if he left, and that he’d rather pursue that than stay with an employer who had publicly accused him of being a plagiarist.

Update: Cold, Hard Football Facts, the Web site that first reported on Borges’ light fingers, weighs in on his departure — right down to some Snoop Dogg-style boasting about the size of its virtual testicles. Really.