Ill-advised Hinckley decision undermines insanity defense

President Reagan moments before being shot by John Hinckley. Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk.
President Reagan moments before being shot by John Hinckley. Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk.

I’m not outraged that a federal judge has decided to release John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. But I don’t think it’s a good idea, either. Hinckley grievously wounded the president; say what you will about Reagan’s seemingly complete recovery, but there was plenty of evidence that he was never the same. Hinckley also injured Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady, leading to Brady’s premature death in 2014.

This isn’t a yes-or-not situation; Hinckley already enjoys considerable freedom, and he apparently has not abused it. He’ll still be under some supervision. Still, I don’t think the government should go any further for two reasons:

1. Federal judge Paul Friedman ruled that “the preponderance of the evidence” shows “that Mr. Hinckley will not be a danger to himself or to others.” This strikes me as a value judgment, and that Friedman had the discretion to rule otherwise on the grounds that anyone who did what Hinckley did will always be a danger to others.

2. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. That outraged a lot of people who wanted to see him go to prison. In fact, it was the right thing to do, and it ought to happen more frequently. Unfortunately, granting freedom to someone as notorious as Hinckley will only make it more difficult for defense lawyers to make the already-difficult case that their clients should not be held criminally responsible.

Hinckley should be held in a safe, humane, and secure facility. He should not be freed.

More: Harvey Silverglate writes, “What you did not mention is that the release of Hinckley will embolden supporters of the death penalty.” Indeed it will.

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Barry Crimmins gets his overdue due in ‘Call Me Lucky’

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Barry Crimmins in “Call Me Lucky”

What can you say about a film that stars someone you know and admire telling the world about being raped repeatedly — and nearly killed — when he was 3 years old?

Since we’re talking about Barry Crimmins, I would say that you should see it as soon as you can.

“Call Me Lucky,” directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, had its New England premiere on Saturday at the Somerville Theatre as part of the Independent Film Festival. As befits the subject, the documentary almost feels like two films. In the first part we meet Crimmins the caustic left-wing performer, who almost single-handedly created Boston’s comedy scene in the 1980s. In the second part, Crimmins comes to terms with his past as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

It was during this second phase that I got to know Barry. He revealed what had happened to him in the early 1990s in a harrowing front-page essay for The Boston Phoenix headlined “Baby Rape.” (I had a small role in copy-editing it, but most of the heavy lifting was handled by the late Caroline Knapp — and, of course, by Barry himself.) Later, Barry was a valuable resource as I was doing my own reporting about child sexual abuse. This was around the time Barry was engaged in a very public campaign against AOL and the pedophiles it allowed to run rampant in its chatrooms, a centerpiece of “Call Me Lucky.” Even though I can’t pretend to be a close friend of Barry’s, I’ve always been struck by his fundamental kindness and decency — a quality that comes through repeatedly in the film. (I was among many people Goldthwait interviewed, but I didn’t make the cut.)

Barry was a regular in the Phoenix, writing a satirical year-in-review piece every Christmas as well as other humor pieces. This 2003 takedown of Dennis Miller works as well today as it did 12 years ago. I still laugh when I recall his referring to George W. Bush as “the court-appointed president.” Barry was a big part of the Phoenix, and vice-versa. So I was pleased to see him pay tribute to the late managing editor Clif Garboden in the credits, saying he learned to write through Clif’s editing. Fittingly, Clif’s own classic apex as an angry humorist begins with a quote from Barry.

Despite its somber subject matter, there are plenty of laughs in “Call Me Lucky” — not just from Crimmins, but from many other comedians, including Jimmy Tingle, Margaret Cho and Lenny Clarke. The biggest laughs, though, are reserved for Ronald Reagan, who is seen attempting to explain what he knew and didn’t know about the Iran-Contra scandal. The man was a comic genius.

Barry was — and is — a comic genius as well. Because I wasn’t taking notes, I’ll rely on the press release for one of my favorite bits from the movie. A protégé of Barry’s, Bill Hicks, recalls that a member of the audience once yelled, “If you don’t love America why don’t you get out?” Crimmins’ response: “Because I don’t want to be a victim of its foreign policy!”

Also posted at WGBHNews.org.

Billionaires’ bash: Big moves by Henry’s Globe, Bezos’ Post

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Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday may have been the biggest day yet for billionaire newspaper owners John Henry and Jeff Bezos. Henry’s Boston Globe launched the long-anticipated Crux, a free standalone website that covers the Catholic Church. And Bezos replaced Katharine Weymouth as publisher of The Washington Post, bringing an end to the 81-year reign of the Meyer-Graham family.

At a time when the newspaper business remains besieged by cuts (including 22 Newspaper Guild positions at The Providence Journal this week, according to a report by Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio), Henry and Bezos are taking the opposite approach.

“You can’t shrink your way to success,” new Washington Post publisher Frederick Ryan told Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post. “Growth is the way to continue to build a strong news organization.” Ryan’s words were nearly identical to those of the Globe’s chief executive officer, Michael Sheehan, at the unveiling of the paper’s weekly political section, Capital, in June: “You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success.”

First Crux. To my non-Catholic eyes, the site appears to offer an interesting mix of the serious and the not-so-serious. The centerpiece is John Allen’s deeply knowledgeable reporting and analysis, some of which will continue to appear in the Globe. (In late August, Publishers Marketplace reported that Allen is writing a biography of Pope Francis with the working title of “The Francis Miracle.” No publisher was named, but according to this, Time Home Entertainment will release it in March 2015.)

Crux national reporter Michael O’Loughlin has weighed in with features on Native American Catholics who blend tribal and Roman traditions and on the Vatican Secret Archives, whose contents turn out to be not as interesting as the phrase makes them sound. Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín covers stories such as Pope Francis’ call for peace in Gaza. WGBH’s Margery Eagan, a former Boston Herald columnist, is writing a column called “On Spirituality.” The events calendar makes it clear that Crux is a very Catholic venture.

There’s a lighter side to Crux, too, such as a trivia quiz on the saints and updates on football teams from Catholic colleges. Crux’s own reporters are supplemented with wire services, including the Associated Press, Catholic News Service and Religion News Service, as well as personal essays such as the Rev. Jonathan Duncan’s rumination on life as a married Catholic priest with children (he used to be an Episcopalian). Crux is also asking readers to write brief essays; the debut topic is illegal immigration.

Two quibbles. An article on the suffering of Iraqi Christians was published as a straight news story, even though the tagline identifies it as coming from “the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need.” When you click to “learn more,” you find out that Church in Need is an advocacy organization that is actively seeking donations. The disclosure is sufficient, but the placement strikes me as problematic. If Crux were a print newspaper, the article could have appeared on the op-ed page. Crux needs a clearly marked place for such material as well.

My other quibble is that content is undated, leaving the impression that everything is now. That can cause confusion, as with a John Allen Globe piece on immigration that refers to “Friday night” — and links to an Associated Press story published on Aug. 2. (Dates do appear on author bios.)

The site is beautifully designed, and it’s responsive, so it looks good on tablets and smartphones. There are a decent number of ads, though given the state of digital advertising, I think it would make sense — as I wrote earlier this summer — to take the best stuff and publish it in a paid, ad-supported print product.

Globe editor Brian McGrory, Crux editor Teresa Hanafin, digital adviser David Skok and company are off to a fine start. For more on Crux, see this article by David Uberti in the Columbia Journalism Review and this, by Justin Ellis, at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

***

A torrent of punditry has already accompanied the news that Frederick Ryan, a former chief executive of Politico, will become publisher of The Washington Post on Oct. 1.

The irony is thick. When Post political reporters John Harris and Jim VanDeHei proposed launching Politico under the newspaper’s auspices in 2006, they were turned down. Today, Politico often dominates the political conversation in a way that the Post used to (and, of course, sometimes still does). I’m not always a fan of Politico’s emphasis on politics as insider gamesmanship, but there’s no doubt the site has been successful.

As the Post’s own account makes clear, Ryan is a longtime Republican activist, and was close to both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That shouldn’t affect the Post’s news operations, though it could affect the editorial page — hardly a bastion of liberalism even now. In another Post story, Ryan “endorsed” executive editor Marty Baron and editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt. Baron, a former Globe editor, may be the best newspaper editor working on this side of the Atlantic.

What concerns me is the strong scent of insiderism that is attached to Ryan. In an address to the staff, Ryan said one of his goals is “winning the morning,” according to a series of tweets by Post media blogger Erik Wemple (reported by Jim Romenesko). That might seem unremarkable, except that it sounds like something right out of the Politico playbook — um, make that “Playbook.”

A New York Times account by Ravi Somaiya dwells on Ryan’s obsession with the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, and quotes Ryan as calling it “an important event.” Those of us who find the dinner to be an unseemly display of Beltway clubbiness might agree that it’s important, but for different reasons.

Then again, if Ryan can fix the Post’s business model and show the way for other news organizations, all will be forgiven. The Post, like the Globe, has been expanding under new ownership. On Tuesday, the Post unveiled its most recent venture, The Most, an aggregation site.

Bezos’ track record at Amazon shows that he’s willing to take the long view. I suspect that he’s still just getting started with the Washington Post.

 

Media to president: You’re a liberal!

The state of the union may or may not be strong, but the State of the Union was liberal.

That was the view of media commentators from the left, right and center the morning after President Barack Obama delivered his fourth State of the Union address. The president called for a higher minimum wage, universal preschool and action on gun control and climate change, among other things. And the consensus is that his support for such measures signaled a public embrace of activist government that we’ve rarely seen since the rise of Ronald Reagan more than three decades ago.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Decoding the Times’ Haig obituary

Tim Weiner of the New York Times weighs in with a harsh obituary of Alexander Haig. You should check out his description of Haig’s behavior after Ronald Reagan had been shot — he comes off as a power-mad general intent on staging a coup.

No, Haig did not speak with great precision that day. But do former Reagan aides like Richard Allen, who clearly hated Haig, really believe that Haig didn’t understand the vice president was next in line if Reagan were incapacitated?

The key to Weiner’s piece is this paragraph:

“His tenure as secretary of state was very traumatic,” John M. Poindexter, later Mr. Reagan’s national security adviser, recalled in the oral history “Reagan: The Man and His Presidency” (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). “As a result of this constant tension that existed between the White House and the State Department about who was going to be responsible for national security and foreign policy, we got very little done.”

Amazingly, Weiner does not identify Poindexter as (1) a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, which nearly brought Reagan’s presidency down, and which unfolded years after Haig left the Reagan administration; and (2) the mastermind of a surveillance system during the George W. Bush years called, in a nice Orwellian touch, the Total Information Awareness System, or TIAS.

Getting trashed by the likes of John Poindexter is a good thing. Too bad Weiner didn’t make that clear.

More: It gets worse. BP Myers notes in the comments that Weiner claims the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, which cost the lives of 241 marines, took place in “the immediate aftermath” of Haig’s dismissal, as though his policies were somehow responsible. In fact, the date of the bombing was Oct. 23, 1983, a year and a half after Haig’s departure.

Alexander Haig, 1924-2010

Alexander Haig

Alexander Haig, a longtime Media Nation favorite, has died at the age of 85. My high regard for Haig is based on the three most famous incidents of his career. I can’t pretend to know what Haig was thinking, but my strong suspicion is that his contributions to the nation were never fully understood or appreciated.

First, as Richard Nixon’s chief of staff during the final days of Nixon’s presidency in 1974, Haig paved the way for Nixon’s peaceful departure from office — no sure thing at the time. There have been suggestions, never proven, that Haig was in on secret discussions with the Pentagon to disregard any orders from Nixon that could lead to a military coup or a nuclear strike. At the very least, Haig served as an honest broker between Nixon and then-vice president Gerald Ford, who may have promised a presidential pardon during this tense, dangerous period.

Second, Haig sacrificed his career as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state by reassuring a jittery public following the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981. Haig may not have realized it at the time, but his words before the television cameras — often misquoted as “I’m in charge” — were misinterpreted by his enemies (deliberately, I would argue) to make it sound as though he was attempting his own coup, superseding then-vice president George H.W. Bush. (Haig’s actual words: “As of now, I am in control here, at the White House.”) Haig deserves credit for stepping up at a moment when others were running around like Chicken Little. As it turned out, that moment effectively marked the end of Haig’s public service; he left office the following year.

Finally, and I say this at least partly tongue-in-cheek, Haig entered the 1988 Republican presidential primaries for the sole purpose of sparing the country from George H.W. Bush. Haig had to know he personally had no chance of winning. Thus my suspicion is that he hoped to do enough damage to Bush in order to steer the nomination to Bob Dole. Haig’s classic putdown of Bush in a 1987 debate — “I never heard a wimp out of you” — was aimed at playing off a famous Newsweek cover story about Bush headlined “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.'” And when Haig, inevitably, pulled out of the race, he endorsed Dole. Bush prevailed, of course. But Haig did what he could.

The president and the Boss

A radio station needn’t obtain advance permission before playing a particular song by a particular musician. Same with a nightclub. Under copyright law, you’re free to play copyrighted music as long as you pay a fee.

That goes for politicians, too. In today’s Washington Post, Christopher Sprigman and Siva Vaidhyanathan explain why musicians such as Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, the Foo Fighters and others have no legal basis in objecting to the McCain campaign’s use of their songs. The campaign, they note, has paid its licensing fees, and that should be the end of it. (Via Altercation.)

It’s a free-speech issue, and, as such, we should be just as vigilant against Jackson Browne’s attempt to censor the Republicans as we are about, say, Sarah Palin’s redefinition of freedom of the press as a “privilege.”

The man who wrote the book on how to respond to an unwanted political embrace was Bruce Springsteen. In 1984, Ronald Reagan, running for re-election, gave a shoutout to Springsteen, whose “Born in the U.S.A.” had set off a boomlet of patriotic fervor. Though in actuality it was a bitter antiwar anthem, the upbeat music had confused more than a few conservatives into thinking Bruce had cast his lot with the “Morning in America” crowd.

Shortly thereafter, Springsteen, at a concert in Pittsburgh, introduced his song “Johnny 99” — about an unemployed auto worker-turned-murderer — with this:

The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.

And that was the end of that. (Wikipedia reference verified by my steel-trap memory.)

Update: Looks like some news organizations are pushing an overly restrictive interpretation of copyright law, too — even going so far as to demand that YouTube delete some McCain ads that use news clips.

Photo (cc) by Music Master and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved. And in case you were wondering, yes, that’s a wax figure, not the real Bruce.