‘Chronicle’ takes a look at the future of Boston’s newspapers

Anthony Everett of “Chronicle”

Last Wednesday I had a chance to talk about “The Return of the Moguls” with Jesse Grossi, a producer for “Chronicle” on WCVB-TV (Channel 5), for a report on the fate of The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. You can watch “Breaking News” by clicking here or on the image above. Stay tuned for our cat, Dexter, who makes a prolonged if diffident appearance.

How Boston media were shaped by the FCC and dirty politics

Tip O’Neill (center) and the Kennedy family were on opposite sides in the battle that gave rise to modern Boston media. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Federal Communications Commission overturned a decades-old rule last week that prohibited common ownership of a television or radio station and a daily newspaper in the same city. At a time when newspapers are hemorrhaging money and the broadcast news business is shrinking, the FCC argued, the so-called cross-ownership ban had become obsolete, and was standing in the way of possible joint enterprises that could reinvigorate news coverage.

The more likely outcome of such hybrids would be combined newsrooms, layoffs, and a dumbed-down product. Here in Boston, it would mean something else as well: the end of a regulatory regime that was instrumental in shaping our media environment. It was an epic battle over cross-ownership that led to the rise of The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald’s slide into perpetual also-ran status, and the emergence of WCVB-TV (Channel 5) as one of the best local television stations in the country. The story is told in three books: “Common Ground,” J. Anthony Lukas’ monumental history of Boston during the busing era; “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” by John A. Farrell; and “Newspaper Story: One Hundred Years of the Boston Globe,” by Louis M. Lyons.

The origins of this tale goes back to January 1956, at a lunch at the Somerset Club on Beacon Hill attended by, among others, Herald publisher Robert “Beanie” Choate and Globe publisher Davis Taylor. The once-dominant Boston Post was about to fold, and Choate proposed that the Herald and the Globe — the largest and most influential of the city’s remaining papers — combine their forces and thus avoid an expensive newspaper war. When Taylor refused, Choate reportedly told him: “You fellows are stubborn. Worse than that, you’re arrogant. You better listen to us or we’ll teach you a lesson. I’m going to get Channel 5, and with my television revenues I’ll put you out of business.”

Two commercial TV channels were already on the air in Boston. Under FCC guidelines, the third license — that is, Channel 5 — should not have been awarded to the Herald, which already owned two radio stations. Yet it was, after a furious round of lobbying by Choate. When Davis Taylor and his cousin John Taylor made the rounds in Washington to find out what had gone wrong, they were told by House Minority Leader Joe Martin, a North Attleborough Republican, “I’m afraid you fellas have just been outpoliticked.”

Indeed they had been. It seemed that Joe Kennedy was determined to win his son Jack a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Profiles in Courage.” The judges in the biography category were so unimpressed with “Profiles” that it did not even appear among the eight books they nominated, so Kennedy and his friend Arthur Krock — a veteran New York Times columnist who had stepped down as chairman of the Pulitzer board several years earlier — worked to persuade board members to overrule the judges and award the prize to Jack Kennedy. Joe Kennedy and Krock succeeded.

Among the Pulitzer board members who concluded that “Profiles in Courage” deserved a Pulitzer was none other than Beanie Choate. No surprise there. Joe Kennedy had dispatched one of his coat-holders, Francis Xavier Morrissey, a municipal-court judge, to assure Choate that he would get the license to Channel 5 if he voted to give JFK a Pulitzer. And Joe Kennedy was as good as his word. By a four-to-two vote, the FCC granted the license to Choate; siding with the majority were two commissioners with close ties to Kennedy.

Choate’s victory represented an existential threat to the Globe. Its young Washington bureau chief, future executive editor Robert Healy, was assigned the task of trying to unearth information that could reverse the FCC’s decision. Healy cultivated an unlikely source: Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, then a rising Cambridge congressman, who was interested in higher office but was afraid he would be blocked by the Republican-leaning Herald if the Globe went out of business. With O’Neill’s help, Healy got access to the inner workings of a congressional investigation into federal regulatory agencies. Healy was able to report the existence of telephone records that showed FCC chairman George McConnaughey had improper contacts with Choate. That, along with several other stories, led the FCC in 1972 to strip the Herald of its television license.

Without a television station to prop it up, the Herald Traveler, as it was then known, could not survive. It was sold to Hearst’s Record American, which published the paper as the Herald American until 1981, when a rising press baron named Rupert Murdoch rescued it. Channel 5, meanwhile, was acquired by a civic-minded community group called Boston Broadcasters, who adopted the call letters WCVB, pumped up its news operation, and innovated with local programming such as “Chronicle,” a magazine-style show that survives to this day. WCVB was sold in 1982, leaving its founders very wealthy but the station itself less ambitious and more focused on the bottom line. Even now, though, the Boston television market is widely considered to be smarter than is the case in most areas of the country, a situation that can be attributed in part to the legacy of Channel 5.

Perhaps one of the more surprising elements of the Globe-Herald struggle was that O’Neill and the Kennedy family found themselves on opposite sides, and that the Kennedys’ interests were aligned with the Herald rather than the Globe. Eventually, O’Neill and the Kennedys formed a tight bond, and the Globe was often regarded as close — inappropriately in some cases — with both the future House speaker and the members of the Kennedy dynasty.

The Globe’s relationship with the Kennedys played itself out in a faint echo of the Channel 5 story in 1988, when Rupert Murdoch purchased Channel 25. Sen. Ted Kennedy quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver allowing Murdoch to own both a TV station and a newspaper in Boston. Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald. Several years later Murdoch repurchased Channel 25 and sold the Herald to his longtime protégé Pat Purcell, who continues as the Herald’s publisher to this day. Thus did the cross-ownership ban not only pave the way for the Globe’s rise to dominance but it ended Rupert Murdoch’s years in the city’s newspaper market as well.

Now the cross-ownership ban is gone. How will that change the Boston media scene? The current Globe owner, John Henry, has long been interested in television. Both the Globe and the Herald operate internet radio stations that feature music and talk, respectively. Might they seek to purchase terrestrial radio stations? Or could the owner of one of the city’s TV stations buy one or both newspapers?

There’s no question that the rise of digital technology has hollowed out traditional media, rendering the cross-ownership ban archaic in some respects. On balance, though, the ban has been good for Boston news consumers. What comes next is likely to have a lot more to do with profits than with the public interest.

Barbara Howard of WGBH Radio’s “All Things Considered” and I talked about the FCC’s regulatory changes last week. Click here if you’d like to give it a listen.

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Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997

On Feb. 6, 1997, just after the debut of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix on the state of the city’s two major public broadcasters, WGBH and WBUR. It was the first time I’d met the host, Emily Rooney. The original is online here, but, as you will see, it’s unreadable; thus, I have reproduced it in full below. In re-reading it, I was struck by what an interesting moment in time that was, with many of the same names and issues still with us 17 years later.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

Copyright © 1997 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

GB_largeplayerEmily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

This is, after all, the first significant foray into local public-affairs programming for WGBH (Channels 2 and 44, plus a radio station) since 1991, when it canceled The Ten O’Clock News. The new show is a huge improvement over the one it replaces, The Group, an unmoderated roundtable discussion that rose from the ashes of the News. (“A tawdry, pathetic little show,” huffs one industry observer of The Group, widely derided as “The Grope.”) Still, Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.

It’s crucial that ’GBH get it right. With commercial broadcasters in full retreat from serious news and public affairs, public-broadcasting stations are the last redoubt. Boston’s two major public stations — WGBH-TV and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) — are among the most admired in the country. It’s by no means clear, however, that the people who run those stations are willing or able to fill the gap created by the commercial stations’ retreat into sensationalism and frivolity. Continue reading “Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997”

Legislative committee debates shield law

180By Robert A. Bertsche

I attended Wednesday afternoon’s spirited hearing at the Statehouse on the proposed Massachusetts shield bill, before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The bill is titled the “Free Flow of Information Act,” H.1553, described as “An Act providing against compelled disclosure of certain information by the news media.” Here’s a quick account of the proceedings.

Bottom line: Passage is far from assured, but the bill got its most thorough airing in years. Longtime Boston news anchor and reporter Susan Wornick spoke passionately in favor of the bill, backed up by three media lawyers (including my partner, media lawyer Jeffrey J. Pyle) and Rep. Josh S. Cutler, D-Duxbury, one of the bill’s sponsors. The committee’s House vice chair, Rep. Christopher M. Markey, D-Dartmouth, was most outspoken in opposition.

Wornick, of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), recounted her ordeal of being almost jailed in the mid-1980s for refusing to reveal her confidential source to police and a grand jury investigating alleged corruption by Revere police. “I made this promise because this man had important information. Without his information, I could not have told the story, and law enforcement could not have done their jobs.”

“I was terrified,” Wornick recalled, but she said she received widespread public support for her courage in protecting her source. “People were infuriated that I was being harassed and demonized by law enforcement because I wouldn’t break my promise.” Ultimately the source identified himself in order to save Wornick from jail time. It was big news at the time; she received a standing ovation from a packed Boston Garden when she was introduced to the crowd at a Celtics game.

Susan Wornick
Susan Wornick

“We need a shield law in Massachusetts to that journalists can do their jobs,” she said. “Anonymous sources are crucial” to journalists — we all know that.”

Media lawyer Jonathan M. Albano followed. When he started working in this legal area in 1982, the most recent case on the subject was In re Roche, two years earlier, in which the Supreme Judicial Court noted that it might be beneficial if Massachusetts law provided reporters “more clearly defined protection against intrusive discovery” than existed under the common law balancing test then (and now) in force. With clearer standards in place, “news reporters and sources might be able to base their behavior on better defined expectations, thus encouraging informed expression,” the court wrote then.

“It has been 32 years since that case and there are still no definite rules in place to guide reporters,” said Albano, managing partner of Bingham McCutchen’s Boston office. “Today, whether a source will be protected, and whether a reporter will be required to testify about that source, depends on which judge you draw,” and that judge’s exercise of her or his discretion, he said.

Pyle, appearing on behalf of the New England Newspaper and Press Association (with 230 Massachusetts daily and weekly newspaper members), then described the provisions of the proposed shield law. “The bill provides much-needed clarity that would protect the future Susan Wornicks of the world,” he told the filled hearing room.

As Jeff explained, the proposed law would apply to “covered persons,” those working for “news media” and who prepared the information at issue in that capacity. “News media,” in turn, is defined to include not only mainstream and student media but also “any entity that is in the regular business of gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means….”

The bill offers a near-absolute privilege as to disclosure of information identifying any news source (whether confidential or not), subject only to an exception where necessary “to prevent imminent and actual harm to public security from acts of terrorism,” in which case disclosure may be compelled if disclosure of the source’s identify “would prevent such harm” and if “the harm sought to be redressed by requiring disclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in protecting the free flow of information.”

The bill offers a qualified privilege as to unpublished information, the disclosure of which may be compelled only if a court finds, after notice and hearing, that there is “clear and convincing evidence” establishing that (1) the information is “critical and necessary to the resolution of a significant legal issue” before a governmental entity, (2) the information “could not be obtained by any alternative means” and (3) “there is an overriding public interest in the disclosure.”

Jim Taricani
Jim Taricani

Jeff reminded the committee of Providence television reporter Jim Taricani’s four months of home confinement in Rhode Island for defying a court order to reveal a source; James Risen’s ongoing battle to protect his source for national security secrets published in his 2006 book about the CIA; and Fox News reporter Jana Winter’s battle to protect a confidential source for her story about the notebook that James Holmes sent to his psychiatrist, previewing the shooting spree that resulted in the death of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. “In the absence of a shield law,” he said, “Massachusetts reporters face a real and imminent threat of going to jail” simply for doing their jobs.

Speaking for the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, attorney Peter J. Caruso Sr. told legislators that the bill offered them “the opportunity to provide courts, prosecutors, and litigants with “direction and clarity” as to the information that can be obtained from reporters.

Rep. Cutler, himself a former third-generation newspaper editor, assured his fellow legislators about what the proposed law is not: “It is not about protecting journalists — it’s about protecting journalism,” he said. It’s not the creation of a new evidentiary privilege, but rather the codification of an existing common law privilege. It’s not a “roadblock” to district attorneys, but rather “a road map setting forth the rules.” It’s “not a new, unproven legal theory,” but rather a piece of legislation already in place, to a greater or lesser extent, in 40 states. And it’s “not about helping media conglomerates,” but rather about “protecting the little guy,” including the small-town newspapers for whom even the “mere threat of a subpoena can have a chilling effect.”

When the floor was opened to questions, Rep. Markey, who worked for 15 years as a prosecutor in the Bristol County district attorney’s office, vigorously challenged the shield law advocates. He objected that the proposed law would deprive prosecutors of an important investigative and prosecutorial tool. He also lamented that as to identification of sources, the law would provide an undifferentiated privilege for reporters, the applicability of which would not vary based on the level of public importance of the issue about which information is sought. Markey said he believed the law would shift control of criminal investigations from prosecutors to journalists: “You’re putting the burden on government to show there are no alternatives” before seeking testimony from a reporter, such that a “journalist who hasn’t taken an oath is now the only person who has that knowledge” about certain criminal activity.

Albano disagreed, reminding Markey, “The journalist does not decide, the judge decides.” Markey retorted that the “clear and convincing evidence standard” to be met by those seeking a reporter’s testimony would prove a difficult hurdle to surmount. He ended with an emotional appeal, saying he is concerned about the law’s impact on “a 39-year-old mother who has a 19-year-old son who has been shot, and who is going to a wake that night,“ and who wants the police to do all they can to find her son’s killer. “You’re telling the police, ‘Go to everyone else, but don’t go to [the reporter]. “

Few of the other committee members spoke. State Rep. Sheila C. Harrington, R-Groton,  asked a few clarifying questions, but the committee co-chairs, Sen. Katherine M. Clark, D-Melrose,  and Rep. Eugene L. O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, did not offer their views on the bill. As the hearing wound down, Sen. Richard J. Ross, R-Wrentham,  spoke directly to news anchor Wornick and saluted her for her battle to fight for her source 30 years ago.

“You went through hell,” he told her.

Robert A. Bertsche is an attorney and chair of media law practice at Prince Lobel Tye LLP. Copyright © 2013 by Robert A. Bertsche, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. This work is made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Marjorie Arons-Barron moves to WordPress

It’s Backscratching Day at Media Nation, so let’s get right down to it. First up: My friend Marjorie Arons-Barron has moved her blog from Blogspot to WordPress, and can now be found at marjoriearonsbarron.com. I gave her a hand in making the transition, and her new site is much more attractive.

Arons-Barron is a longtime journalist and former editorial director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5). Please pay her site a visit.

Veteran journalist Charles Kravetz to run WBUR

Charles Kravetz

Public radio station WBUR (90.9 FM) has chosen veteran television journalist Charles Kravetz as its new general manager, replacing Paul La Camera, who recently announced his retirement. La Camera will be sticking around for two years in the newly created position of administrator of public radio.

In turning to Charlie Kravetz, 58, the station has embraced yet another old Channel 5 hand. La Camera had retired as president and general manager of WCVB-TV (Channel 5) several years before coming to WBUR. Kravetz also worked at WCVB, helping to create the newsmagazine “Chronicle,” before embarking on a long stint at New England Cable News, which he helped launch and from which he was ousted as president and general manager when Comcast took it over in 2009.

Kravetz has been deeply involved in efforts to create a shield law that would offer some protection to people doing journalism — including independent bloggers who meet certain criteria — from having to disclose their confidential sources.

Kravetz, like La Camera, is a smart guy and a class act, and ‘BUR is lucky to be getting him. The station’s license is held by Boston University, and Rich Barlow has much more at BU Today.

Jim Boyd retires from Channel 5

How on earth could Jim Boyd be 66 years old? The WCVB-TV (Channel 5) anchor is retiring, according to the Boston Herald’s Jessica Heslam.

“I see this less as a retirement and more as a transition,” Boyd says in a Channel 5 press release. “I plan to remain intimately involved in the local community and explore interests that the demands of a full-time career didn’t allow.”

Boyd harks back to a different, better era for local television news. He and his quiet competence will be missed.

Natalie Jacobson departs

I’ll be on New England Cable News at some point this evening to discuss the legendary Natalie Jacobson’s decision to step aside as a news anchor at WCVB-TV (Channel 5).