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.

Was Ordway firing more about ratings — or money?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am old enough to remember Glenn Ordway as the color man back when the legendary Johnny Most was doing Celtics play-by-play.

I have nothing especially profound to say about Ordway’s departure from WEEI Radio (AM 850), a station he helped build into a sports powerhouse and that is now lagging in the ratings behind relative newcomer WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), better known as the Sports Hub. I’m only pointing out the obvious by observing that if this was all about the ratings, then no one is safe, starting with John Dennis and Gerry Callahan.

The one thing I’d keep an eye on is whether the move to dump Ordway was about money as much as it was about ratings. Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant based in Chicago, tells Matt Stout of the Boston Herald that Ordway’s salary — $500,000, down from $1 million a couple of years ago — was seriously out of whack with what local stations pay these days. Chad Finn of The Boston Globe reports that Ordway’s replacement, Mike Salk, is expected to make about $100,000.

We’ve already seen the dismantling of political talk radio in Boston. WTKK (96.9 FM) recently switched to music. WRKO (AM 680), which, like WEEI, is owned by Entercom, has cut way back over the years, to the point at which afternoon host Howie Carr is the station’s only highly paid star. The one exception to the downsizing trend on the commercial dial is Dan Rea’s evening show on WBZ (AM 1030).

Sports talk starts from a much higher ratings base than political talk, so perhaps Entercom is willing to spend some money to get WEEI back in the game. But it’s not only about ratings these days. It used to be that if you put up the numbers, the advertising would come rolling in. The ad business has changed considerably in recent years, and it’s not that simple anymore. There are plenty of non-radio options for people to listen to in their cars these days.

Ordway is talking about pursuing Internet options, and I wish him well. The challenge is that Internet radio doesn’t make money, and is generally used to promote something else. Consider the city’s two online alternative-music outlets. WFNX.com and RadioBDC exist to extend the brands of The Phoenix and the Globe’s Boston.com site, respectively. I don’t think anyone expects them to become profit-generating monsters.

As for the battle between WEEI and the Sports Hub, it could be that the most interesting sports talk you’ll hear over the next few weeks and months will be about the stations, not what’s on them.

Photo (cc) by uzi978 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Over the top with Beckett and the Red Sox

Josh Beckett

I’ve been listening to a lot of sports radio since it emerged that Josh Beckett golfed despite missing a start with an injury or near-injury or whatever it was, and I just thought I’d throw this out there:

The sports pundits in Boston have gone insane. Some more so than others, of course. Tony Massarotti and Mike Felger of the Sports Hub (98.5 FM) have been completely unhinged, while Michael Holley and Glenn Ordway of WEEI (93.7 FM) have been relatively restrained and coherent.

Overall, though, it’s gotten so ridiculous that hosts were asking callers last night if they would rather have seen Beckett get lit up than pitch the seven innings of shutout baseball that he turned in. And some said yes, damn right, they wish he’d been blown out in an inning or two.

Beckett strikes me — and most of us, I’m sure — as a pretty unlikeable guy. I don’t appreciate the way he answers questions. He was apparently the ringleader of the chicken-and-beer brigade, whose importance has been exaggerated, but which nevertheless was symbolic of a team that wasn’t much of a team. Still, the real story behind the Red Sox’ collapse last September and this spring is staring you in the face: the starting pitching totally melted down. When the starters do well, the Sox win, as we’ve seen this week.

Beckett pitches to the best of his ability (which is still pretty good, if not 2007 good), he doesn’t make excuses and, as he showed on Tuesday, he certainly doesn’t let himself get distracted.

There’s a pattern here. In 2010, Jacoby Ellsbury was injured and misdiagnosed, and the jock punditocracy questioned his heart and toughness. Last year Clay Buchholz fractured vertebrae in his back — think about that for a moment — and got the Ellsbury treatment. For good measure, John Lackey, who, yes, is loathsome in many respects, gave it his all despite needing Tommy John surgery.

Perspective, folks.

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

WEEI gets back in the game

Much as I prefer the Sports Hub to the bitter old men of WEEI, I suspect John Dennis, Gerry Callahan and company are going to make up a lot of ratings ground very quickly once they start simulcasting on WMKK (93.7 FM) this coming Monday (Boston Globe story here; Boston Herald story here).

I don’t think anyone should underestimate how badly ‘EEI has been hurt by its miserable signal (AM 850) in the face of sports-talk competition from the Sports Hub, officially WBZ-FM (98.5). Yes, the programming on the Sports Hub is better, younger and funnier. But ‘EEI has been at a huge disadvantage. And it’s not without assets, principally Michael Holley plus Red Sox and Celtics games.

It’s not just that AM is fading from the scene — no worries, I suspect, at news-and-talk station WBZ (AM 1030), which has a nice, strong signal that can be heard in most places east of the Mississippi River after sundown. It’s that 850, weak and full of static, is almost unlistenable.

As for the simulcast, I give it a few months so that WEEI can promote 93.7. Once everyone has gotten the message, Entercom will probably do something else with 850 — although, frankly, it’s not good for much more than leasing it to a foreign-language religious broadcaster.

It’s still news when a sportswriter comes out

I find it interesting that it’s 2011 and it’s still occasionally noteworthy when we learn that a journalist is gay. Today Boston Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley writes a heartfelt piece — teased on page one — headlined “Welcome to my coming-out party.”

No surprise. I’d heard several times over the years that Buckley was gay, though, as Buckley makes clear, he wasn’t fully, publicly out. What makes his sexual orientation newsworthy are two factors:

  • He covers sports, a macho world where such things still matter, if not nearly as much as they used to. You can be sure that if Buckley’s beat were the Statehouse, he would not have written about being gay.
  • He’s probably best known as a regular presence on sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), where homophobia has been part of the mix for many years. Here’s just a taste. I don’t listen to ‘EEI as much as I used to, and perhaps the gay-baiting isn’t as bad as it was in the past. In any case, Buckley’s coming-out may encourage the station to clean up its act.

This is actually the second time a Herald sportswriter has come out — Buckley was preceded by Ed Gray in 2003. So let’s not make too much of this. Still, it’s a good thing that Buckley has decided to be who he is in public as well as in private. Somewhere today there’s a gay teenager feeling just a little bit better about himself.

Is there more to Howie’s suspension?

Howie Carr

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So maybe Howie Carr’s suspension from WRKO Radio (AM 680) is just a suspension. But let me inject some uninformed speculation into the matter. The once-great station has been running on fumes for some time. Maybe its corporate owner, Entercom, has decided to force an end game, let Carr out of his contract and turn ‘RKO into an outlet for, oh, let’s say Spanish-language infomercials.

The Boston Globe’s Erin Ailsworth reports that Carr was suspended for a week for badmouthing the station on the air — something he has done continuously since he was forced into staying in 2007. (Apparently it’s gotten worse lately.) Carr is said to be unhappy that Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved to Clear Channel’s WXKS (AM 1200), part of a national “Rush Radio” network.

Funny, but I thought one of the reasons the station replaced Rush with Republican political consultant Charley Manning was that Howie and Manning are buddies, and that Charley might keep the petulant star more or less in line. I don’t have any numbers in front of me, but Boston radio observers have long noted that this is one of Limbaugh’s worst markets. The idea of not fighting to keep Limbaugh and going with a local show struck me as pretty smart, even if Manning’s show is a work in progress.

Carr does seem to be wallowing in bitterness lately. For instance, he recently wrote in his Boston Herald column that President Obama wouldn’t have made it through college and law school if he weren’t black:

Of course, no one expects Barack Obama to really know anything. We understand, all too well, exactly how he got through Columbia and Harvard Law. He had certain … intangibles, shall we say.

That’s pretty rancid even by Howie’s standards. No, I’m not leaving anything out — the ellipses are his, not mine.

Back in 2007, Carr tried to jump to WTKK (96.9 FM), which wanted him as its morning guy. Unfortunately for Carr, he turned out to have a contract more restrictive than Curt Flood’s, and he was forced to stay.

What’s not known is whether Greater Media, which owns ‘TKK, still wants him. Morning drive is now ably helmed by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. Would ‘TKK move Jay Severin out of afternoon drive to make way for Carr?

Moreover, given the changed economic climate, it certainly seems unlikely that Greater Media would still be willing to pay Carr $7 million over five years.

The other mystery factor is how much Entercom really wants WRKO to succeed. There’s a lot of audience overlap between ‘RKO and another Entercom station, WEEI (AM 850), a sports-talk outlet that also carries the Red Sox. No doubt the company wants WRKO to make money, but not at the expense of its more-valuable sports station.

Carr is a legitimate talent, but it’s been years since he’s showed more than an occasional glimmer. His suspension comes at a time when he probably has little leverage. Maybe he’ll be back on the air in a week as though nothing happened. But you have to wonder if Entercom executives have finally decided it’s time to do something drastic about its faltering talk station.

Photo (cc) by Paul Keleher and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Original at Wikimedia Commons.