COVID Diary #11: Back on campus, and feeling pretty good about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy.

It feels more normal than I had expected.

I’m writing this on Tuesday of Week Two at Northeastern University. I’ve taught five classes — two via Zoom, three in person. I’ve taken three COVID tests. I’ve been rear-ended on the Zakim, taken the commuter rail, gotten on the Orange Line and walked the three miles from North Station to campus. I’ve ordered coffee, including my first Starbucks since last March, which I’m drinking right now.

And yes, I’ll admit, it’s good to be back.

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Trump goes to war against government-subsidized media

Photo (cc) 2006 by Melissa Gira.

What if President Trump actually had the power to do something about journalism that he doesn’t like? Unfortunately, we already know the answer. A number of media organizations operate under government auspices, and until recently they’ve enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for independence and truth-telling. Now, though, they are in danger of being dismantled or turned into organs of Trumpist propaganda.

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We need ranked-choice voting — and this November we can make it happen

GBH News graphic by Kaitlyn Locke.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Here we go again.

As of Wednesday morning, it was still unclear who had won the Democratic primary in the Fourth Congressional District. In a field of nine candidates, including two who had dropped out before the primary, Jesse Mermell was running ahead of Jake Auchincloss by the razor-thin margin of 22.4% to 22.3%. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that whoever is nominated in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy will have received far fewer than a majority of the votes.

That also happened two years ago in the Third Congressional District, when Lori Trahan edged out Dan Koh in a 10-candidate Democratic primary. Trahan received 21.7% to Koh’s 21.5%, which was enough to propel her to victory that November against token Republican and independent opposition. This time around, Trahan, now the incumbent congresswoman, ran unopposed in the primary.

This is no way to run a democracy. Elections that produce winners lacking majority support fail to reflect the will of the voters. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One solution would be to have a runoff election between the top two finishers. That’s the way they do it in some states, and it would be preferable to what we have currently in Massachusetts. But that’s expensive and time-consuming. Even then, it looks like Mermell and Auchincloss together will receive less than 50%, as was the case with Trahan and Koh in 2018 — which means that a majority of Democratic voters wanted someone else.

That’s why ranked-choice voting — also known as the instant runoff — is a better solution. And it’s on the ballot this fall. If Question 2 is approved, the system would go into effect in 2022, covering most state and federal offices but exempting presidential and local elections.

Here’s how ranked-choice voting works. Let’s say five candidates are running. You can vote for one, just as you do now. Or you can designate a second choice and, if you like, keep right on going from one to five in order of preference. It’s entirely up to you.

If no one wins a majority, the fifth-place finisher would be eliminated, and the second choices of voters who supported that candidate would be awarded among the remaining candidates. The instant runoff continues until someone emerges with a majority. Third-place (or lower) votes would be counted if more rounds are needed to produce a majority winner. (For more information about ranked-choice voting, visit Yes on 2.)

This accomplishes two things. First, it eliminates the possibility that a minority winner might be someone who is loathed by voters who backed other candidates. Instead, the winner will be someone who had broad enough support to have been the second or third choice of many voters. Second, it eliminates gamesmanship at the polls. No longer would voters have an incentive to pick someone who isn’t their top choice in order to block someone else. Instead, they could rank their favorite first and their backup second.

The bane of this sort of strategic voting — or, rather, non-strategic voting — is why Maine adopted ranked choice in 2018. The bombastic Republican Paul LePage was elected governor in 2010 and 2014, each time with less than a majority, because a strong independent candidate split the anti-LePage vote with the Democratic nominee. Given what a polarizing figure LePage was, it seems likely that most independent voters would have picked the Democrat as their second choice (and vice versa), thus reflecting the will of the majority that someone other than LePage serve as governor.

I’ve been a fan of ranked-choice voting since 2000, when Ralph Nader’s independent candidacy may very well have cost Al Gore the election and handed the presidency to George W. Bush. As I wrote for The Boston Phoenix at the time, if you make the reasonable assumption that most Nader voters would have ranked Gore second, Gore would have taken Florida and thus the White House.

The question now is whether Question 2 will pass muster with voters in Massachusetts. It’s got a lot of support. According to State House News Service, all but one Democratic candidate in the Fourth Congressional District, including Mermell and Auchincloss, said they supported ranked choice.

Moreover, a recent poll by WBUR and the MassINC Polling Group showed that respondents were evenly split on the measure — but that among those who said they understood ranked choice “very well,” 52% were in favor and 37% were against. With two months to go before the November election, proponents have a chance to win over skeptics.

Of course, the power of inertia is difficult to overcome. Ranked-choice voting isn’t as simple as the system we have now, and there’s a lot to be said for simplicity. But elections should reflect the will of the voters as closely as possible. Ranked choice does that. Which is why I’m voting “yes” on Question 2.

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How an intrepid Greek exile, the CIA and The Boston Globe nearly kept Richard Nixon out of the White House

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Elias Demetracopoulos was a fascinating character — World War II resistance fighter, journalist, opponent of the military junta in Greece and, ultimately, a political exile in the United States. Today, though, he is all but forgotten.

In a new biography, James H. Barron seeks to rectify that. “The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate” (Melville House) portrays a larger-than-life figure who could have altered the course of American history if his warnings about illegal Greek financial contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign had been made public. As Barron reveals, The Boston Globe came tantalizingly close to breaking that story — but it went untold until years later.

Given what we already know about Nixon’s attempts to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks during the 1968 campaign, the new details about secret Greek money described by Barron can only add to Nixon’s reputation as a corrupt, cynical politician willing to wade illegally into international affairs if he thought it would benefit him. Watching President Donald Trump clumsily bulldoze his way over the path blazed by Nixon calls to mind Marx’s observation that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Barron is a lawyer and journalist based in the Boston area whose career stops included The Boston Phoenix, and who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, The New Republic and The European. He was the first book review editor for Campaigns & Elections. Barron is also a founding advisory board member of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, now the WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. His wife, Marjorie Arons-Barron, is the retired editorial-page editor at WCVB-TV (Channel 5) and a well-known local blogger.

The following email interview has been lightly edited.

Q: What were the circumstances that led you to tell Demetracopoulos’ story?

A: Serendipity. I was rushed to the ER by ambulance in 2007. Before they figured out my problem, I tried to quell my fears by imagining an idyllic morning on the island of Mykonos 40 years before. Afterward, I thought about why, at that perilous moment, my mind went to Greece in 1966.

I briefly considered writing a novel set there, but I’m not a fiction writer. I was fascinated by the Bostonian Greek tycoon Tom Pappas’ role in the 1968 election and started to write about him. In 2009, I told the legendary investigative reporter Sy Hersh about my project. He advised me to focus instead on Elias Demetracopoulos, the person who tried to blow the whistle on Pappas.

After meeting Elias in Washington, I realized this episode was a small part of a remarkable life, beginning with his days as a 12-year-old involved in the Greek resistance. He was captured, tortured, imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Nazis. Later, as an aggressive, fiercely independent journalist, he fled Greece when a military junta seized power in 1967, escaping to the U.S. over State Department objections.

Q: You write that Demetracopoulos went to Democratic Party operative Larry O’Brien in 1968 with information that Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign had received a secret $549,000 payoff from the Greek junta. You also speculate that O’Brien didn’t inform President Lyndon Johnson, even though it could have led to Nixon’s defeat at the hands of Hubert Humphrey. Why do you think O’Brien sat on it?

A: I explore different theories. O’Brien trusted the message, but not the messenger. Before fleeing to the U.S. in 1967, Elias had been a scoop-hungry reporter whose exposés had so angered American officials that the CIA and State Department tried to destroy his reputation and effectiveness, often placing false information in his intelligence files. JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger passed lies and unjustified speculation to O’Brien and others that, beneath his charming exterior, Elias was a communist who secretly worked for “the other side,” and should not be trusted.

Joe Napolitan, Humphrey’s media adviser, begged to use the Pappas illegal foreign money revelation in ads. O’Brien said no. David Broder of The Washington Post told me that, given how close that election was, Elias’ disclosure would have been a “bombshell” that could have changed the outcome. Imagine history with no President Nixon and no Watergate.

Q: There’s a great Boston Globe angle in your story. You write that Washington bureau chief Bob Healy took Demetracopoulos’ tip to editor Tom Winship, who in turn assigned the story to Christopher Lydon. Lydon ended up writing a profile of Tom Pappas, who was part of Nixon’s campaign as well as a bagman for the junta, but he was unable to prove there had been a payoff. Did the Globe ever try to revisit that story?

A: Healy’s tip came informally from CIA agents, not Elias, indicating that American intelligence at some level knew about the Greek junta plot to bribe the Nixon-Agnew campaign. O’Brien told Elias that, because the matter was so delicate, if he wanted O’Brien to go to LBJ to expose the scandal, Elias must not talk to the press. And he didn’t.

Lydon wrote about the Greek money rumor in the Globe but said the charge was “unsubstantiable.” Lydon interviewed Pappas, who denied the charges, and O’Brien’s press secretary, who said nothing to Lydon about Elias — despite Elias’ detailed revelations to O’Brien, his offers to provide corroborating witnesses in Athens, and even to fly some witnesses to the U.S. More problematic were non-Globe reporters like Gloria Steinem, who summarily dismissed the Greek money rumors as an illegality the frontrunning “New Nixon” would not stoop to commit.

The Globe never revisited the story. Elias moved on, considering his efforts to blow the whistle on Pappas a distraction from his principal fight to restore Greek democracy. Lydon later joined The New York Times, where he met Elias and found him to be a credible source.

Q: The title of your book refers to “the untold story of Watergate.” As you explain, the gang of Nixon operatives who broke into O’Brien’s office at the Watergate complex may very well have been looking for O’Brien’s notes on what Demetracopoulos had told him four years earlier. That would place Nixon’s relationship with the Greek junta at the center of both his 1968 and 1972 campaigns. How does that change our understanding of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency?

A: Greece was peripheral to Nixon’s foreign policy interests, save for his preferring a staunch anti-communist dictatorship to a messy democratic government, human rights be damned, and as a source for illegal campaign funds to be milked by his tycoon fundraiser Tom Pappas.

Watergate is a metaphor for abuse of power during the Nixon years. The scandal didn’t begin with the planning for the June 1972 break-in. Its roots are in the illegal financing of the 1968 election, the potential disclosure of which caused, in the words of the historian Stanley Kutler, the “most anxiety” in the Nixon administration “for the longest period of time.”

Elias’ 1971 congressional testimony against Pappas pushed Nixon’s henchmen into overdrive and led to schemes to have Elias deported, not to mention looking away when the Greek junta plotted to have Elias kidnapped and killed. The sole opportunity to expose the reasons behind the Watergate break-in before the election was stopped because of untruthful attacks on Elias’ reputation.

There is strong circumstantial evidence that at least part of what the burglars were directed to find was whatever derogatory information the Democrats had on Nixon, especially financial documents related to foreign contributions.

Q: Demetracopoulos was a well-known, well-connected figure for many years, yet today he is all but forgotten. What do you think is the single most important lesson of his life and career?

A: Fame is fleeting. Two of the most influential columnists of that time, Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop are also largely forgotten today.

The central takeaway from Elias Demetracopoulos’ life is that one intrepid individual, against great odds, can make a difference — but standing up to abusive governments often entails profound risks, great personal sacrifices, and a lifetime of relentless attacks and harsh consequences.

To be a whistleblower requires the courage to jeopardize your career and even risk your life. But doing so can influence history.

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As Gannett seeks to hire journalists, Alden continues to ‘strangle’ them

Photo via the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Among those of us who follow the business of local news, there is a tendency to lump the two most notorious corporate chain owners together. Gannett Co. and Alden Globe Capital, after all, are both notorious for slashing their newsrooms to the bone. Their newspapers and websites in too many instances fail to meet the information needs of the communities they purportedly serve.

Yet there is a difference. And I was reminded of that difference recently by Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for the Poynter Institute.

After a decade’s worth of cuts, Gannett is planning to bolster its reporting corps in the near future, Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Edmonds — although he didn’t provide any numbers. Currently, Gannett employs about 5,000 journalists at its properties, which include USA Today, about 260 regional dailies and many other weekly papers and websites, including dozens in Greater Boston.

“We need to get even better,” Reed was quoted as saying. Well, OK. I would replace “even” with “a lot.” Still, such talk would be unimaginable at Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group chain of about 200 papers has sparked newsroom revolts as well as demands from 21 U.S. senators that the company stop its “reckless acquisition and destruction of newspapers,” according to a recent story by Sarah Ellison in The Washington Post.

The difference between how Gannett and MediaNews are perceived may have something to do with their ownership structures.

The current Gannett is the result of a merger late last year between Gannett and GateHouse Media. Despite keeping the Gannett name, it was clearly GateHouse that got the better of the deal: Reed was the chief executive at GateHouse before assuming the same position at Gannett. The new Gannett immediately embarked on an estimated $400 million in cuts in order to pay down the debt it had taken on in financing the merger, according to the media-business analyst (and newly minted entrepreneur) Ken Doctor at Nieman Lab.

Gannett is a publicly traded corporation, which means that Reed’s ultimate goal is long-term growth and sustainability — albeit with as little journalism as the company can get away with. Reed hopes to do that by leveraging Gannett’s media holdings with digital marketing subsidiaries the company owns as well as an events business, which is obviously on hold during the COVID pandemic.

If everything works out over time, it is possible to imagine Gannett’s local news outlets staffing up and providing better, more comprehensive coverage than they have in recent years. As good as what would be offered by independent newspapers and websites? Almost certainly not. But any improvements would be welcome.

Alden Global Capital, on the other hand, is a hedge fund. And as best as anyone can tell, the company has no strategy for MediaNews Group beyond extracting as much money as it can for as long as it can. Its Massachusetts papers, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg, operate on a shoestring. The Fitchburg office was closed several years ago. The Herald’s office in Braintree was recently shut down as well, although it’s unclear whether that was a temporary, COVID-related move or something permanent.

In Ellison’s Washington Post article, Alden managing director Heath Freeman tried to portray himself as a savior of journalism. “I would love our team to be remembered as the team that saved the newspaper business,” he was quoted as saying. Ellison, though, ran through a list of MediaNews papers across the country that have been so gutted that they have virtually no one to cover the news.

“Don’t buy the idea that Alden is trying to save newspapers. I don’t think any idiot would buy that,” said Dean Singleton, the owner of an earlier iteration of MediaNews Group whose own reputation as a cost-cutter looks benign by today’s standards. Freeman’s retort: “We’ve saved the very newspapers that Dean Singleton ran into bankruptcy, so take his recriminations with a grain of salt.”

Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but quality local news can be a key to reviving civic engagement, which in turn could help us overcome the hyperpolarization that defines our culture nationally. According to a recent survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 70% of Americans believe the news media play a “critical” (30%) or “very important” (42%) role “in making residents feel connected to their local community.”

Moreover, Andrea Wenzel of Temple University, in her new book “Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust,” found that people trust local news outlets more than they do national media.

“While national press was perceived by residents of all political backgrounds as distant, privileged, and dismissive of local culture,” she wrote, “it was not uncommon for residents to have first- or secondhand interactions with local reporters. So while participants could identify shortcomings, there was a base-level familiarity and trust.”

Those interactions are important — but they are becoming increasingly rare at the local news organizations being run by Gannett and MediaNews Group. At least there’s some reason to hope that the situation might improve at Gannett. As for MediaNews, a former reporter for the chain, Julie Reynolds, put it this way in The Nation several years ago: “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline. Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”

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Racial justice and attack ads dominate the third Markey-Kennedy Senate debate

Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Two key moments bookended Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate debate between Democratic incumbent Ed Markey and his primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III. We probably won’t know for a few days whether either of those moments will matter. But with early voting under way and polls showing the race to be up for grabs, any edge could make a difference.

The first moment came early, when Kennedy brought up recent reports that the parents of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr. had accused Markey of acting indifferently — even using the term “colored” — at a meeting over the 2010 killing of their son by a white police officer.

“You did nothing,” Kennedy said. “I have stood by that family for year after year through thick and thin.”

Presumably Markey, who has apologized to the Henry family, knew the matter would come up. But he seemed flat-footed, asserting over and over that he, Kennedy and Sen. Elizabeth Warren had all worked together to draft letters demanding an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

“When Congressman Kennedy says I did nothing, he knows it’s not true,” Markey said. “He knows it is a falsehood.”

But that merely created an opening for Kennedy, who retorted: “Let’s be very clear. It’s not my words that said you did nothing. It’s Mr. Henry’s words that said you did nothing.” Score one round for Kennedy on the crucial issue of racial justice.

The second moment came later. Markey complained that Kennedy’s twin brother, Matthew, is running a Super PAC — a campaign fund not directly affiliated with a candidate — that has been responsible for multiple attack ads against Markey.

Markey then speculated that Kennedy’s father, former congressman Joe Kennedy II, was helping to fund the Super PAC with money from fossil-fuel companies with which he’d done business.

“Is your father funding that Super PAC that is attacking me right now?” asked Markey.

“No clue, no idea,” Kennedy responded. He quickly tried to change the subject, pointing out that it was Markey who declined to sign a “People’s Pledge” keeping undisclosed outside money out of the campaign.

Markey lowered the boom: “I’m sure your father is watching right now. Tell your father right now that you don’t want his money to go into a Super PAC that runs negative ads.” As several people pointed out on Twitter, it might have been illegal for Kennedy to do as Markey had demanded, since candidates are forbidden from coordinating with Super PACs. Nevertheless, it was an effective bit of political theater.

And then Kennedy went too far, accusing Markey supporters of pushing social-media posts referencing Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated John F. Kennedy. Markey seemed genuinely offended at the accusation that toxic internet trolls were somehow tied to his campaign.

““No one affiliated with my campaign would ever say anything like that,” Markey said, dropping his voice. He added that it was “completely unacceptable.”

The debate, broadcast on WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and moderated by political analyst Jon Keller, was freewheeling, although much of it focused on small issues and even smaller differences between the two candidates.

With both candidates espousing progressive agendas, the campaign has come down to Markey’s legislative record, compiled during more than four decades in office, versus Kennedy’s contention that he would lead the fight for the values they share across the country.

“I have more than 500 laws on the books that have been signed by presidents,” Markey said. “That is what I do.”

Responded Kennedy: “The difference is: he’ll vote for it, I’ll fight for it.”

One particularly hot potato Keller dropped in their laps was a question about whether they would endorse a candidate of color next year against Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. It was an opportune moment, Keller said — not only is racial equity an issue that has risen to the top of the national agenda, but Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had just chosen U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a Black woman, as his running mate. But both men left the tin foil on the spud and tossed it harmlessly away.

“It’s impossible to predict the future. It just is,” Markey said. “You’re asking a hypothetical. Mayor Walsh is doing a good job.” Kennedy added, “Mayor Walsh certainly deserves a chance to make his case.”

The last day of voting (what we used to call primary day) is Tuesday, Sept. 1. Two Republicans are also seeking the Senate seat: Shiva Ayyadurai, a technology entrepreneur, and Kevin O’Connor, a lawyer. The Democratic and Republican nominees will face off to determine the winner on Nov. 3.

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COVID Diary #10: These are the good old days

2002 photo by Chris Spielmann.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

We wedged ourselves between the concrete Jersey barriers that were separating the parking lot from the outdoor dining area and approached a server. “Would you like a table inside or out?” she asked. “Out!” we replied with some alacrity.

It was a beautiful recent evening — the third time we had ventured to restaurants since the COVID-19 restrictions had eased. There was no way we were going to eat inside; frankly, we would have been reluctant to use the restrooms if nature had called.

But eating out provided us with a blessed sense of normality that had been missing in those locked-down days of spring. It helped that the restaurants we visited were all doing it right — masked servers, tables spread apart, customers and staff friendly and chill. We’ve also had friends over a few times, outdoors, socially distanced, masked up when getting food or drinks. It was almost enough to make you think that life as we knew it was gradually beginning to return.

Now it’s starting to look like a fantasy — a lull before the next wave of pandemic restrictions rather than a sign of real progress.

We all know what’s going on. Nationally, the situation has been disastrous for many weeks, as the number of cases and the death toll have been rising in southern and western states that had been largely unaffected by the early wave. Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, who is overseeing the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, called the current surge “extraordinarily widespread.”

In Massachusetts, where our early, terrifying outbreak had been brought under control, the numbers are creeping back up. “What we’re seeing are the indicators that a surge is coming,” Northeastern University epidemiologist Samuel Scarpino told The Boston Globe earlier this week.

Scarpino is urging Gov. Charlie Baker and other officials to reimpose some of the restrictions that had been in place earlier in the pandemic. At the same time, thousands of college students are about to descend upon the area, many of them from states like Florida and Texas, where mask-wearing is seen as something that only socialists do.

It’s now clear that plans made during May and June, when some green shoots of optimism began sprouting from the barren soil, are no longer realistic. The return of Major League Baseball has been a five-alarm disaster. Office workers are being told to stay home until January at the earliest. Hopes of reopening public schools this fall, either fully or in part, have given way to demands from the teachers unions that classrooms remain closed until safety concerns can be addressed. Colleges and universities — including Northeastern, where I teach — are for the moment sticking with plans they made months ago to reopen for at least some in-person classes, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely.

What’s also been clear for some time now is that President Donald Trump’s abdication of leadership transformed a situation that would have been bad in any case into something infinitely worse. “Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus,” writes Ed Yong of The Atlantic near the top of his massively researched overview of the Trump administration’s failures.

So now what? The economy is sliding backwards, and real suffering is on the horizon if Congress fails to pass another relief bill — or, frankly, if it passes the Republican version, which is grossly inadequate.

And the respite we’ve been enjoying in recent weeks will begin to fade. Soon we may no longer have the option of going to restaurants and sitting inside — it’s either the parking lot or nothing. There will be rainy days. And it will start to get cold. And more and more restaurants, struggling to hang on since March, will shut down.

Public schools will struggle once again with Zoom classes as parents try to balance their kids’ education with their own need to work. Higher education may have to return to online-only, and hard-pressed families will start to demand answers to why they’re paying massive tuition bills for a University of Phoenix-style experience.

And those lazy evenings of al fresco dining will start to look like a fond memory rather than a harbinger of better days to come.

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How Trump’s efforts to ban critical books violate the Constitution

Illustration (cc) 2006 by Bill Kerr.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For those keeping track of the various ways by which President Donald Trump is trampling on the Constitution, move this to the top of your list: his former lawyer Michael Cohen was sent back to prison earlier this month to prevent him from writing a tell-all book about Trump.

Cohen, serving a federal sentence related to various corrupt acts on behalf of the president, was allowed to go home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But he was locked up again after he refused to promise not to publish his Trump book, “Disloyal,” before the November election. Cohen was sprung for a second time by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who ruled last week that federal authorities had violated Cohen’s First Amendment rights.

“How can I take any other inference than that it’s retaliatory?” Hellerstein asked prosecutors, according to The Associated Press, adding: “Why would the Bureau of Prisons ask for something like this … unless there was a retaliatory purpose?”

The Justice Department’s short-lived effort to silence Cohen by imprisoning him was egregious even by the thuggish standards of the Trump era — but it was also just the third recent move by the president and his minions to prevent critics from publishing books about him. The others:

• Former national security adviser John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” was held up for months while undergoing review for the ostensible purpose of ensuring that Bolton did not reveal any classified information. That, at least, was a legitimate reason. But Bolton and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, ultimately chose to defy the White House after it became clear that the process was being drawn out for reasons of politics rather than protocol.

In allowing the book to proceed, federal judge Royce Lamberth wrote that Bolton may very well have been improperly revealing secrets — but that the First Amendment remedy for all but the most dangerous breaches of national security is to punish the perpetrator after publication, not to prevent publication ahead of time. According to NPR, Lamberth wrote that Bolton had “gambled with the national security of the United States,” but that “the government has failed to establish that an injunction will prevent irreparable harm.”

• Trump, through his brother Robert, sought to prevent the release of his niece Mary L. Trump’s devastating book about the president, “Too Much and Never Enough,” by claiming that she was violating a nondisclosure agreement she had signed many years earlier.

Although a lower-court judge granted Robert Trump a temporary restraining order, that order was overturned by Judge Hal Greenwald of the Supreme Court of New York. In a nice turn of phrase, The Washington Post reported, Greenwald wrote the Constitution “trumps contracts.”

Though the circumstances of Cohen’s, Bolton’s and Mary Trump’s books couldn’t be more different, there is a common thread: the First Amendment demands that publication not be prohibited, and that if the authors are to be subjected to any legal penalties, those penalties must come later.

The principle that prior restraint is the worst and most indefensible of assaults on free expression goes all the way back to the English poet John Milton, who in his 1644 tract “Areopagitica” argued against the requirement that printers obtain licenses on the grounds that everyone should be free to print what they wished without government interference.

In stirring language, Milton wrote that “though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Milton also anticipated modern First Amendment law by arguing in favor of unimpeded publication first, punishment (if warranted) after — though his ideas about what constituted proper punishment were suffused with a distinct 17th-century sensibility, writing that “the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectuall remedy.”

In the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two landmark cases that, with very few exceptions, punishment should come only after publication.

In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the court ruled that prior restraint could be invoked only in cases involving a serious violation of national security, obscenity or incitement to violence. Thus was a Minneapolis-based scandal sheet allowed to resume publication even though every previous issue had contained outrageous libels.

In New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), the court upheld the Near precedent and ruled that publication of the Pentagon Papers could resume because the national-security implications were not serious enough to warrant censorship — although a majority suggested that they might be serious to justify post-publication prosecution, as my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate has shown.

In Trumpworld, the revelations of Michael Cohen, John Bolton and Mary Trump are so horrifying that they justify being repressed even more than the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. Yet as President Richard Nixon argued at the time, the Pentagon Papers really did undermine the war effort. Today’s revelations have resulted only in embarrassment to the president.

And it continues. Last week The New York Times reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was blocking the release of a Netflix documentary that depicts the agency’s abuse and mockery of immigrants. The filmmakers, Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, said they’d been told that objections to their work extended “all the way to the top.”

Unfortunately, Schwarz and Clusiau had signed an agreement granting approval rights to ICE. And though that agreement supposedly included “strong protections for their journalistic independence,” as the Times put it, it’s now being wielded as yet one more way to protect Trump from scrutiny and criticism.

There is a school of thought that Trump’s ranting about the media — calling them “Enemies of the People,” threatening to loosen libel protections and the like — is little more than bluster. His two Supreme Court justices, regardless of what else you might say about them, appear to be as dedicated to protecting the First Amendment as their colleagues. And Trump rarely follows through on his threats.

But there is a connection between his rhetoric and his actions: anyone who speaks against him must be silenced and punished — even jailed and put at risk of death, as with Michael Cohen.

With federal troops cracking down on mostly nonviolent protesters against the wishes of governors and mayors, the scent of authoritarianism is in the air. Will we pay attention? Or will we simply move on to the next outrage, as we have so many times in the past three and a half years?

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COVID Diary #9: Commuting in the age of pandemic

A cyclist heads north on Mass Ave just north of Harvard Square.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little after 11 a.m. this past Saturday, I eased myself onto my bike and headed toward Boston. My destination was Northeastern University, where I teach in the journalism program. I wanted to see if it was realistic to commute by bicycle once in-person classes resume this September.

What prompted this experiment was a story in The Boston Globe. According to Steve Annear, even as ridership begins to recover from the pandemic, more passengers are refusing to wear masks — and the MBTA is taking a decidedly laid-back approach to enforcement.

“What I’ve been doing as a rider whenever I see people not wearing a mask is I’ve been getting off in between stations and running to the next car, hoping the people on the new car will all be wearing their masks,” a rider named Victoria Kroeger told Annear.

Terrific.

For more than 20 years, I’d commuted to Boston from the North Shore by car, a soul-sucking ordeal that grew worse every year. Then, in 2014, we moved to West Medford, returning to a neighborhood where we’d lived for a few years in the early 1980s. I discovered the joy of walking to the train station and then hopping onto the subway at North Station. Commuting became almost a pleasure. We all love to complain about the T, but it rarely let me down.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I want to get onto sealed trains and subway cars with hundreds of strangers, any one (or dozen) of whom could be carrying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Especially if maskless morons are spewing aerosolized particles of disease into the air.

Which is why I was on my bike Saturday, maneuvering on side paths and urban streets. From the Alewife Greenway I picked up Mass. Ave, then headed toward Harvard Square. From there I followed the Charles River to Boston and back to Mass Ave. I turned right onto St. Stephen Street at Symphony Hall and from there pedaled to my office, which I couldn’t actually get into because of pandemic restrictions.

I’d covered 8.9 miles in 53 minutes, a little faster than it would take by public transportation. I was no worse for the wear; but it was a hot day, and I was sweating freely. If this had been an actual commute, I’d want to take a shower — but the locker rooms at the campus recreation center are closed for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic. (And I wouldn’t take the risk, anyway.)

I’d proved that I could do it, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I would do it. After shattering my elbow in an encounter with a wet speed bump 10 years ago, I didn’t ride a bike again until last year. So I’m ever wary about the hazards of urban biking. I’m also not going to ride in the rain or in the dark. For me, biking to work is a maybe option under perfect conditions, but hardly a comprehensive solution.

So what am I — what are all of us — supposed to do?

A couple of years ago, we decided to become a one-car family. My wife takes it for her short drive to work, and she has no other options. I’ve thought about trying to lease a car until V (Vaccine) Day. But I’ve heard from many of my colleagues that they’re also thinking of driving because of concerns about the T, so it seems more than likely that parking will be a nightmare. I’ve thought of relying on Lyft, but I’m not convinced that would be a COVID-free experience, either.

The message on the MBTA website is simple and direct: “All riders and employees are required to wear face coverings while riding the T.” But will the T start doing a better job of enforcing it? What about social-distancing? What about air quality? What happens when a subway car stops, the electricity goes off and air circulation is cut off?

These are things we all ought to be concerned about, especially when thousands of college students from all over the country — most definitely including states that are surging now — arrive in Boston a few weeks from now.

It had been a couple of months since I’d been on campus, so I spent a little time looking around. I was surprised by how many students were sunning themselves on Centennial Common — not huge numbers, but enough to make the campus feel at least semi-populated. Then I headed home, this time skipping the river route and taking Mass. Ave from Hemenway Street into North Cambridge, shaving a half-mile off my trip.

It was fun. But I couldn’t help but notice how light traffic was compared to what it will be like on weekdays after Labor Day. Maybe some hardier, younger folks than I could make the transition to commuting by bike. But I’m almost certainly going to have to depend on the T, and I’m not going to be alone.

Multiply my story, and my concerns, by tens — if not hundreds — of thousands, and you’ve got an idea of what challenges the region is going to face this fall. According to the T, there were 1.16 million trips taken in February, the last month before the pandemic hit. Safe public transportation is indispensable to our economy and to the well-being of our community.

We can’t let the T become a vector for a new COVID surge. We have to get this right.

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Let the sun shine in: It’s time to end the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law

Photo via Good Free Photos.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s long past time to close a gaping loophole in the Massachusetts public records law: an exemption that allows the Legislature to conduct much of its business in secret. State agencies as well as cities and towns are required to turn over all manner of documents when members of the press and the public ask them to do so. Our elected lawmakers, though, operate under the cover of darkness.

With legislative business wrapping up during the next few weeks, it’s too late to expect anything to happen this year. But Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said he expects bills aimed at rolling back at least part of the exemption to be filed next January. Unfortunately, he also expects those bills to die the same quick death that similar proposals have in previous years.

“The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” Ambrogi said in an email. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, added he was “fairly certain there is no appetite” on Beacon Hill for any serious effort at reform.

Spokespersons for the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, declined to comment.

What prompted this column was a tweet. Two weeks ago, WGBH News published the annual New England Muzzle Awards, which spotlight outrages against the First Amendment from across the region. Anthony Amore, a security expert who was the 2018 Republican candidate for secretary of state, posted on Twitter: “Somehow the Massachusetts Legislature and Robert DeLeo escaped notice despite the most glaring muzzle of them all, exempting themselves from public records requests.”

 

Sadly, the exemption Amore was complaining about is hardly a shocker given the sorry state of open government in Massachusetts. According to a 2018 survey by the nonprofit investigative news project MuckRock, Massachusetts is just one of four states that do not subject their legislatures to public records laws. The others: Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

“In our state’s constitution, it says that the Legislature should be ‘at all times accountable to’ the people,” Mary Connaughton of the Pioneer Institute told MuckRock. “How can they be accountable if they are hiding behind closed doors or shielding their records from the people?”

MuckRock also pointed out that the four outliers are merely following the lead of Congress, which is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act. But that’s hardly an excuse. Let’s not forget that, in 2015, the Center for Public Integrity awarded Massachusetts an “F” for its miserable record of failing to provide public access to information.

The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker did approve an upgrade to the public records law in 2016. But though some progress was made in terms of fees and enforcement provisions, the loopholes remain. Indeed, not only is the Legislature exempt, but so is the judiciary. And a string of governors, including Baker, have claimed that they and their immediate staff also need not comply.

As Boston Globe investigative reporter Todd Wallack noted on Twitter earlier this week: “Massachusetts remains the only state where the courts, Legislature, and governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt from public records laws.”

 

Ambrogi said that, during negotiations over the 2016 bill, it was made clear to reform advocates that their efforts would be derailed if they targeted the legislative and gubernatorial exemptions. The bill did create a special legislators-only commission to study further changes — but that effort, according to Ambrogi, has barely gotten off the ground.

In testimony before the commission nearly two years ago, Ambrogi said, a coalition of advocates called for removing the exemption for the governor and for modifying the exemptions for the Legislature and the courts. He emphasized that the advocates have not asked that the legislative exemption be repealed in its entirety. Rather, he said, “we proposed subjecting certain legislative records to the public records law, such as financial reports, bills and resolutions, journals, certain internal memoranda, internal manuals and policies, meeting minutes, and more.”

In a recent point-counterpoint feature in The Boston Globe, Lawrence Friedman, a professor at the New England School of Law, defended the legislative exemption. “It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Yet 46 state legislatures somehow manage to conduct business without such secrecy provisions. As Friedman’s sparring partner, Justin Silverman, argued, “These types of records are used by community watchdogs, journalists, and concerned citizens throughout the country to keep their legislators accountable.” Silverman added that with the COVID-19 pandemic reducing access to government officials, being able to obtain records is more important than ever.

If state agencies, city councils, school committees and select boards can comply with the law, then so, too, can our legislators — and our governor and our court system as well. The law already contains a number of common-sense exceptions for such matters as protecting the secrecy of contract negotiations and, when warranted, the privacy of government employees.

There are a number of clichés you could invoke here — sunshine is the best disinfectant, the government works for us, the public’s business should be conducted in public, and the like. The bottom line, though, is that democratic self-government is impossible if our elected officials are shielded from having to tell us what they are saying and doing on our behalf.

The moment has come to bring this outrage to an end.

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