If you build it, will they come? A demand-side theory of what ails local journalism

Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin once said there was nothing wrong with newspaper circulation that a depression and the return of the military draft couldn’t cure.

Storin was right about scary news driving circulation. The crisis (or the excitement, if you prefer) created by Donald Trump’s presidency has led to a substantial increase in the audience for journalism. Paid circulation has reached 4 million at the “failing” New York Times. The Washington Post last year reported it had signed up more than a million digital subscribers, a number that is presumably much higher today. Audience and contributions have risen at places like NPR and ProPublica.

But hold the applause. The flip side of Storin’s observation is that the improved fortunes for purveyors of high-quality journalism are fundamentally the consequence of national interest in national news. At the local level it’s a different story.

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Despite a pundit meltdown, the midterms were good for Democrats

I was puzzled as I watched the returns roll in from Tuesday’s midterm elections. For weeks, the polls had pointed to a solid Democratic win in the House, continued Republican control of the Senate, and a tough slog for rising Democratic stars in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That’s exactly how it played out. And yet the pundit class was acting as though Hillary Clinton had just lost again.

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What would Mister Rogers have said about the Trump-inspired hatemongers of the right?

It was an irresistible hook at a moment of horror: Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where a hate-mongering gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, was the home of the late Fred Rogers, the otherworldly host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“It doesn’t just feel like a ‘Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhood’ — it was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” wrote my friend and former Northeastern colleague Dina Kraft in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, whose bat mitvah was held at Tree of Life after her family’s regular synagogue burned down, recalled Jews and gentiles working together, Mr. Rogers-style, to put out the fire.

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Local newspapers are dying. And hedge funds are making it worse.

The state of local journalism is grim — and the hedge funds that have scooped up hundreds of newspapers over the past decade have made things even worse than they otherwise might be.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the University of North Carolina. Titled “The Expanding News Desert,” the study finds that corporate chains controlled by private equity and hedge funds cut more deeply, shut down more papers, and demonstrate less regard for journalism’s civic mission than was the case with “the historic practices of traditional print newspaper companies.”

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Minority rule: Why our undemocratic republic must give way to something else

The founders favored indirect democracy reflecting the will of the majority.

If something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. And so it is with the current state of our democracy, which awards disproportionate power to an ever-shrinking slice of the electorate. Today the president, the Senate, and the Supreme Court reflect the will of a minority of voters. The majority is left out in the cold. At some point that has to change, even if it’s not at all clear how it’s going to happen.

Now, some of you are already sharpening your sticks and getting ready to poke holes in my argument. We’re not a democracy, you’ll say. We’re a constitutional republic. Well, you’re half-right. Living in a constitutional republic means that our democratic rights are sometimes exercised indirectly, and that there are certain protections that the majority may not take away from us. What it’s not supposed to mean is that some people’s votes counts more than others.

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The Supreme Court confirmation process is broken. Here’s how to fix it.

Robert Bork. 2005 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I proposed to fix our state elections by adopting ranked voter choice, moving the primaries to June, and making them nonpartisan. (You’re welcome.) Today I’m back with the exponentially more difficult task of repairing our broken Supreme Court confirmation process. My plan, I think, is simple and logical. But I’d be the first to concede that it has virtually no chance of happening.

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Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech

Alex Jones with fans. Photo (cc) 2006 by Nick Mollberg.

Alex Jones is the sort of dangerous crank that freedom of speech was designed to protect. When the late Anthony Lewis wrote his “biography” of the First Amendment, he titled it “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” We don’t need constitutional protections to report on the church picnic. We need them to make sure that the most loathsome among us are allowed to spread conspiracy theories, spout vile insults, and stage outrageous demonstrations of hatred and prejudice.

And no, Jones is not in danger of losing his First Amendment rights. The government has not attempted to silence him. His website, InfoWars, continues to be a popular stop for those on the extreme right. He is facing a lawsuit from several of the Sandy Hook families, whom he had cruelly accused of staging an elaborate hoax. But that, too, is part of the First Amendment.

The problem is that Jones illustrates perfectly a dilemma that some of us have been warning about for years: the privatization of free speech. As you may know, Jones in recent months has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. Last Friday he was cut off by PayPal as well. He’s going to need to find another way for his customers to pay him for those InfoWars Life Super Male Vitality supplements.

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Beyond ‘Fear’: An ex-New York Times critic explains the cultural rot Trump exploits

We are in the midst of a book-inspired frenzy over Donald Trump’s the cruelty and mendacity. The legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s latest, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” has renewed our anguished questions over how this petulant, foul-mouthed racist could be elected president.

But though Woodward has described the what and the how of the Trump presidency, we must look elsewhere for the why. Trump did not spring out of nowhere; we had been slouching in his direction for a long time. As former president Barack Obama put it the other day: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.” But a symptom of what, exactly?

Attempting to give us some answers is Michiko Kakutani. Her new book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” provides some much-needed context to help us understand what happened to our democracy. The tools wielded by Kakutani, the former weekday book critic for The New York Times, are deep reading and cultural criticism. The result is not entirely satisfying. But she does offer some provocative observations the about social changes that made Trump not just possible, but inevitable.

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Judge extends censorship in plastic-handgun case

In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota that prior restraint — censorship — was permissible only to prevent serious breaches of national security, incitement to violence, and the publication of obscenity. It was Near to which the court looked in 1971 when it ruled that The New York Times and The Washington Post could resume publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

Yet the rise of new doomsday technologies has put a crimp in Near. The latest example: efforts by a radical activist named Cody Wilson to publish blueprints on the internet describing how to use a 3D printer to produce an untraceable plastic gun. As I wrote for WGBH News several weeks ago, the case, based in Washington State, was reminiscent of one involving a left-wing magazine called The Progressive, which in 1979 sought to publish an article describing how to build a hydrogen bomb. In both instances, judges temporarily banned publication. The Progressive eventually published its article, and yet somehow we’re all still here.

Unfortunately U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik is allowing the muzzling of Wilson to drag on, ruling on Monday that the temporary restraining order he had put in place on July 31 would not be lifted until the case has been resolved. According to The New York Times, Lasnik ruled that Wilson’s First Amendment rights “are dwarfed by the irreparable harms the states are likely to suffer if the existing restrictions are withdrawn and that, over all, the public interest strongly supports maintaining the status quo through the pendency of this litigation.”

And yet, the Times continues, the plans Wilson wants to publish are already leaking out here and there, thus showing the futility of censorship.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who joined the suit, is celebrating Judge Lasnik’s ruling. Healey, I should note, is a two-time winner of a New England Muzzle Award from WGBH News for her less-than-vigorous support of the First Amendment.

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Remembering John McCain: Barreling through S.C. on the Straight Talk Express

John McCain in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Photo © 2007 by River Bissonnette.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

We lost a great American on Saturday. Sen. John McCain was a complicated man, but his integrity, courage, and fundamental decency were beyond reproach. In February 2000, I covered the South Carolina showdown between McCain and George W. Bush for The Boston Phoenix. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Today, courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives, WGBH News republishes my story in full.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Straight Talk Express — a bus that’s expanded into a three-vehicle caravan since John McCain’s unexpectedly large victory in New Hampshire — has just pulled up in front of City Hall. A crowd of people has gathered, waiting expectantly for the candidate. Among them is Geno Church, a city employee who’s holding his 5-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, so she can get a closer look. She points to a huge sign on one of the buses that says “McCain” and asks, “Daddy, why does that sign say ‘Media’?”

Out of the mouths of babes and all that.

The McCain campaign is many things. An insurgent effort by an underfunded challenger against an establishment candidate — George W. Bush — who’s been anointed with more than $65 million in contributions. A crusade to clean up a hopelessly corrupt political system. A book tour to promote “Faith of My Fathers,” which, McCain jokingly but carefully notes at every stop, was published by Random House and is available from Amazon.com for $24.95. (It’s working: “Faith of My Fathers” was Amazon’s 36th hottest-selling book as of Tuesday.)

Above all else, though, the McCain campaign is a media moment. The press has fallen hard for McCain, harder than it fell for Bill Clinton in 1992, harder than it fell for Gary Hart in 1984 or George McGovern in 1972. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, it’s clear that the reporters believe they’re in the midst of something historic — something akin, perhaps, to the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, the last time a war hero with a sense of humor and a proclivity for mixing it up with the press ran for president.

“It’s kind of a running dialogue that goes on on the McCain bus. The extraordinary thing about the McCain campaign is that everything is on the record. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says veteran Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie — one of the characters who pops up in Timothy Crouse’s classic on the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus” — calls McCain’s dealings with the media something of a “throwback” to the days when “you didn’t have nearly as many press people running around, and in general the candidates were more accessible.” And for the press, there is no higher value than accessibility.

It’s not that the press is consciously in the tank for McCain, or that he escapes all critical scrutiny. The beat reporters say they’re careful not to let their easy access to the candidate twist their coverage. But the cumulative effect of McCain’s blunt candor, his nonstop, on-the-record chatter, his sense of brio and his insouciance, has been to create an aura of goodwill in which the candidate — unlike perhaps any other national politician — automatically receives the benefit of the doubt.

Collectively — with, of course, certain exceptions (Time magazine broke from the pack last week with excellent pieces on McCain’s ultraconservative ideology and lack of a substantive agenda beyond campaign-finance reform) — the media have concluded that McCain is capable of transcending his unremarkable career in the Senate, his run-of-the-mill influence-peddling, and his doctrinaire conservatism to reform a political system that has grown hopelessly corrupt and out of touch with average Americans. Are they right? Continue reading “Remembering John McCain: Barreling through S.C. on the Straight Talk Express”