There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

The Gannett newspaper chain, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is now being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved from the ravages of Digital First Media, which, admittedly, is much worse. Talk about defining deviancy down. What I observed in Burlington, Vermont, in late 2015 should give anyone pause before they praise Gannett — once labeled by the late media critic Ben Bagdikian as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States.”

The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.

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Digital First wants to buy Gannett, endangering local newspapers across the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.

Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:

Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.

But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.

I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.

Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.

Update: Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.

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Yes, the networks were right to give Trump airtime. No, it wasn’t worth watching.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.

And yet that’s where we are.

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Five ways to de-Trumpify your life in 2019

Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at WGBH News.

The dawn of a new year is yet another opportunity for President Trump to make news in all the wrong ways — and another invitation for the media to obsess over every tweet, insult, lie, and outburst of unpresidential behavior.

Aside from denigrating journalists as purveyors of #fakenews and as the “Enemy of the American People,” Trump has actually been good for the media. Digital subscriptions at newspapers are up, audiences for NPR and political podcasts are growing, and donations are on the rise at ProPublica and other nonprofits. At the same time, though, the relentless coverage of our dysfunctional, falsehood-spewing president has resulted in an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

I’m here to help. No, we can’t ignore Trump — not when his policies result in the deaths of children at the border, or when he refuses to take seriously the apparent murder of a journalist at the hands of the Saudi regime, or when one of his former aides implicates him in crimes. But we can retake control of our news diet, slowing the torrent of Trump news, semi-news, and alleged news to a more manageable flow. Not only will it help us stay sane, but it will allow is to react appropriately when something genuinely terrible takes place.

Here, then, are five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life in 2019.

1. Ignore nearly all stories about Trump’s tweets. The media can’t disregard the president’s sociopathic Twitter stream entirely. Someone has to pay attention. All too often, though, some awful thing Trump said on Twitter winds up overshadowing some even more awful thing he’s doing IRL. You might say Trump does that deliberately. I don’t think so; rather, I think Twitter is where he expresses his truest self. But we need to keep it in perspective.Granted, it can be difficult when he posts a beauty like this:

But, really, was that any worse than what he tweets out on a daily basis? It’s time for all of us to move Trump’s tweets off center stage and to regard them as the sort of low hum that’s given off by fluorescent lights — always there, but usually not noticed.

2. Pay more attention to the world around you. I don’t mean you should take a walk in the woods, although of course you should. I mean you should immerse yourself more deeply in non-Trump news that’s unfolding both internationally and nationally — stories about climate change, war, rising fascism, space exploration, religion, sports, culture, and yes, stories about kindness and compassion and hope.

Politics is just one part of the human experience, which is something that political junkies like me have to remind ourselves of from time to time. And Trump is just one part of politics. Yes, Trump has been good for the business of journalism, but the downside is that news organizations load up their home pages and social media feeds with all things Trump in order to drive clicks and digital subscriptions and to drive us over the edge. We don’t have to take part.

3. Become a news locavore. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in your community, make changing that one of your New Year’s resolutions. It’s not just that it’s important. It’s that people who might have wildly divergent views about national politics usually have less trouble finding common ground at the local level.

There’s an old saying that there isn’t a liberal or conservative way to pick up the garbage, and there’s something to it. More important, though, is that when we get to know each other as individuals, what separates us tends to fade away and what we have in common moves to the forefront. As the journalist James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic shortly after the 2016 election, “at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.” (Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, expanded that idea into a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”)

Part of making a commitment to localism means supporting local media. National and regional news organizations need your support, of course, but so does the startup community website you might be lucky enough to have — or even the corporate-owned weekly newspaper that employs your town’s only watchdog journalist. What she reports on is at least as important to your life as anything you’ll find in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

4. Stop watching cable news talk shows. If there’s a big breaking news story, you’re going to tune in CNN, and so am I. But the social value of the talk shows that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcast during prime time every evening is close to zero.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently watched Rachel Maddow’s and Sean Hannity’s top-rated talk shows on MSNBC and Fox, respectively. And though Maddow’s liberal program was more fact-based than the right-wing conspiracy theories that Hannity offers these days, both shows earn their money by exploiting the political polarization that defines life in 21st-century America. CNN’s idea of an alternative is to have liberal and conservative guests argue with each other.

There is quality news on television. At the national level, the network nightly newscasts are still respectable, and the “PBS NewsHour” offers substance, even if it’s too heavy on eat-your-peas seriousness. Surveys show that local TV newscasts are more trusted than other forms of news, and Boston’s choices are many and varied.

5. Change your relationship with social media. This is a tough one, which is why I’ve saved it for last. For most of us over a certain age, when I talk about social media I’m talking mainly about Facebook, with its 2.2 billion active monthly users. We all know the existential crisis Facebook is dealing with over the exposure of its repeated privacy violations, its manipulation of users via a Russian disinformation campaign, and its mysterious but highly effective algorithm, which keeps users engaged by feeding them content that plays into their fears and anger.

And yet Facebook is just so damn useful, connecting us with family and friends in some pretty powerful ways. For those of us who communicate for a living, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms allow us to expand our reach beyond what was previously possible.

What should we do? Some people are quitting Facebook, and I respect that. Most of us, though, aren’t going to go that far. I’m not, at least not yet. Instead, I think we all ought to resolve to try to use Facebook responsibly in 2019. I can’t define what that means. But I imagine it involves some combination of using it mainly to stay in touch with people who are important to us, interacting on local and special-interest groups, and ignoring politically charged content even when we agree with it. It’s just not healthy.

None of these steps is aimed at eliminating President Trump from your life. That wouldn’t make any more sense than running around with your hair on fire every time he lies. There is going to be plenty of Trump news in 2019. Special counsel Robert Mueller will presumably submit his report at some point. The Democratic House may take up impeachment. The president will continue to act unpredictably, rashly, and, in many instances, horribly. We can hardly ignore it all.

But we can pay attention to what really matters — while at the same time downgrading Trump from a constant crisis to more of a dull, aching pain that never quite goes away.

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Putting 2018 in the rear-view mirror: A look back at a tough year in media

Photo illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The ongoing struggles of Boston’s two daily newspapers. What Facebook should do about falsehood-spreading hatemongers like Alex Jones. The FCC’s latest assault on truth, justice, and the American way. And, of course, our 21st annual roundup of outrages against free speech.

With 2018 entering its final days, I thought I’d look back at what I wrote during the past 12 months. Unlike last year, I’m not going with my 10 most-read columns. Instead, I’ve chosen 10 columns that address a range of different issues, presented here in chronological order.

1. Standing up to presidential power — in 1971 (Jan. 17). With President Trump regularly attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of #fakenews, what could have been more welcome than a feel-good movie about the last time the press confronted an out-of-control president? “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, told the tale of The Washington Post’s desperate struggle to catch up with The New York Times, which had beaten them in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. By agreeing with executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) that the Post should go all in, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) established the Post as a great national newspaper — and paved the way for its later coverage of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.

2. The Boston Herald’s new budget-slashing owner (Feb. 14). When previous Herald publisher Pat Purcell took the tabloid into bankruptcy in late 2017, it was supposed to end in a prearranged sale to GateHouse Media, a hedge-fund-owned chain of newspapers known for its cost-cutting. Instead, another hedge-fund-owned chain with an even worse reputation, Digital First Media, swooped in late in the process and bought the Herald for a reported $11.9 million. The Herald has been decimated by Digital First, although the journalists who are still there continue to do good work. How bad did it get? Recently, Herald editor Joe Sciacca was made the editor of seven daily papers and several weeklies in Massachusetts and upstate New York. No doubt Sciacca will do the best he can. But it’s an absurd situation created by owners who clearly don’t care.

3. The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). Since 1998, I’ve been writing a Fourth of July roundup of enemies of free speech, first for The Boston Phoenix, and since 2013 for WGBH News. (My friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer, writes a separate story on censorship at New England’s colleges and universities.) This year’s Muzzles were especially eclectic, featuring not just bogeymen of the right like President Trump and former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci but also former president Barack Obama and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a progressive favorite. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As the late, great defender of the First Amendment Nat Hentoff memorably put it (quoting a friend), “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

4. Boston Globe owner John Henry expresses his frustrations (July 25). Five years into his announcement that he would buy the Globe, I conducted an email Q&A with the billionaire financier, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. And though Henry insisted that he planned to hold onto the Globe “during my lifetime,” he said he was frustrated with the paper’s ongoing losses and failure “to meet budgets.” Cuts were made in the newsroom and elsewhere throughout the fall. The situation reached a public impasse just recently, when the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the Globe’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side, denounced management for bringing in the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day. The Columbia Journalism Review has described the firm as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.” See more here, including a statement from Henry this week that the Globe is now “profitable.”

5. Remembering John McCain (Aug. 27). On the occasion of Sen. McCain’s death, I republished a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000, when I followed McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina as they campaigned in that state’s Republican primary. Bush defeated McCain and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Regardless of what you thought of his politics, Sen. McCain was a great American and a raconteur who enjoyed sparring with the press. Unfortunately, he seems like an anachronism in the poisonous, hyper-polarized atmosphere of 2018.

6. Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech (Sept. 27). Two cheers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms for deleting Jones’ accounts. He’s not just a right-wing conspiracy theorist; he spouts falsehoods that put actual people in real danger, including the Sandy Hook families and the parents of murder victim Seth Rich. But what have we given up when we’ve turned over our First Amendment rights to giant corporations with their own interests and agendas? Social media has become the new public square. And the public has no say in how it’s governed. These days we are all rethinking our relationship with Facebook. We need some sort of public alternative.

7. Our undemocratic system of government (Oct. 10). When the founders wrote the Constitution, they gave us a republic, believing that the will of the majority should be reflected by and tempered through the wisdom of men of their own social and intellectual class. What they did not believe was that the minority should govern the majority — but that’s what we have today. Thanks to a system that favors smaller states, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court despite being supported by far fewer voters than their Democratic opponents. Reform is long overdue.

8. What ails local journalism? (Nov. 12). Probably my favorite topic, and one I’ve turned to on several occasions during the past few years. I decided to highlight this particular column because I used it to concentrate not on the familiar supply side of the crisis (greedy corporate newspaper owners, a diminishing ad market, and technological changes) but on the demand side. In other words, do people really care enough about what is going on in their local communities? And if they don’t, how can local news organizations survive? We need a crash course in civic literacy. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place in city hall unless they understand why it matters.

9. The FCC targets community access TV (Nov. 28). Having already destroyed net neutrality despite an outpouring of public protest, the FCC is now going after a vital source of information at the local level: community access television, the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY news reports. Under a rule change proposed by the telecommunications industry, local cable providers would be able to deduct the cost of funding public access from the fees they pay to cities and towns. As Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television, told me, “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe.’” U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, among others, is trying to protect funding for local access, but FCC chair Ajit Pai has shown little inclination to act in the public interest.

10. My evening with Rachel and Sean (Dec. 6). With news about the Mueller investigation reaching one of its periodic crescendos, I decided to spend an evening watching the two top-rated cable news programs: Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and Sean Hannity’s on Fox News. And though I found the liberal Maddow to be considerably more respectful of actual facts than Hannity, a conspiracy-minded Trump sycophant, I came away thinking that both are contributing to the polarization that is tearing us apart. In nearly 40 years we’ve gone from “And that’s the way it is” to “And here’s the way we will reinforce your pre-existing prejudices.” What a loss.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2019.

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Fighting #fakenews: A conversation with Shorenstein’s Heidi Radford Legg

Photo via the Shorenstein Center.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In just a few years, #fakenews has moved to the top of what we worry about when we worry about the news media.

Recently the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, based at Harvard’s Kennedy School, released a report seeking to document efforts to fight fake news, from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to academic institutions, from entrepreneurial start-ups to nonprofit foundations. The report, titled “The Fight Against Disinformation in the U.S.: A Landscape Analysis,” was written by Heidi Radford Legg, a journalist who is the director of special projects at Shorenstein, and Joe Kerwin, a Harvard senior.

“Trust in news has fallen dramatically and the rise in polarizing content, created to look like news, is being driven by both profiteers and malevolent players,” Radford Legg and Kerwin write. “Add to this a president that undercuts the credibility of the press on a daily basis and who has declared the press as an ‘enemy of the people.’ American journalism, already shouldering practically non-existent revenue models that have led to the decimation of quality local news, is in deep defense.” (Disclosure: My work is briefly cited in the report.)

What follows is a lightly edited email interview that I conducted with Radford Legg.

Dan Kennedy: You’ve provided a comprehensive overview of efforts to fight disinformation. What is the main takeaway? How do you hope your paper will be used?

Heidi Radford Legg: When I arrived at the Shorenstein Center, as a journalist trained to give context to a situation and who had long worked in upstart or for-profit media, I was fascinated by all the people in academia and in the foundation world who were stepping up to solve this existential crisis for our society. It became immediately clear to me that this was the story. Here was Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, which essentially disrupted the newspaper classified revenue stream, giving $70 million to journalism and the fight against disinformation.

As an entrepreneurial journalist, having founded TheEditorial.com, I was all about disruption and innovation. However, we are now in this acute moment when a deluge of disinformation and misinformation plagues our information ecosystem — exponentially, thanks to this digital age. Local news revenue is being decimated, platforms are absorbing all of the attention economy dollars, and rogue players are penetrating our information pipeline. It is the perfect storm.

Thankfully, a few bold leaders have stepped in to try to put some guard rails in place while we wait for the platforms to self-regulate or be regulated. My hope is that this paper will inspire other funders and civic leaders to get involved, because the effects of disinformation and the breakdown of traditional journalism models are quickly eroding the ability to have an informed citizenry in our democracy.

Kennedy: You cite one of my heroes, Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”What do you think he would have to say about this media and cultural moment?

Radford Legg: I wonder if Postman might think he was too cheeky about the whole thing and should have warned us more desperately ­— the same way climate change advocates worry we are being too apathetic about the dire risks of climate change today. I will say, it is hard not to see that we are dumbing down as a society, with our attention span reduced to nanoseconds. I know some digital experts disagree with me and think we are at a point of great societal leaps with artificial intelligence. I am not there. I would take basic education on civics and critical thinking for all Americans, and an informed citizenry, at this point. Computer code is still binary. It is based on “this equals that.” While transformative and our future, I still believe in the ethical fortitude of the human when taught critical thinking and empathy.

Kennedy: Your section on how Facebook is fighting misinformation is appropriately skeptical, yet I sense that you accept the company’s assurances that it’s sincere about its efforts. I’m wondering if your views have changed since you finished writing this report given the never-ending stream of bad news coming out of the Zuckerborg. Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in his book “Antisocial Media” that Facebook can’t be fixed because it’s working the way it was designed to work. What do you think?

Radford Legg: I tried to stay unbiased in the reporting to list actual measures being taken by platforms at the time of the writing of this paper. I had two terrific Harvard student interns this summer, Joe Kerwin and Grace Greason, who spent hours tracking the media reports on measures the platforms were taking. We would compare the PR version to news articles by Wired, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Harvard’s Nieman Lab. You will remember that from April to August, there was a mad flurry of deplatforming of Facebook sites, scourging of Twitter accounts, and general clean-up by the social media giants ­— who likely knew they were being asked to testify in front of Congress in September. Our research leads up to the moment Twitter’s Jack Dorsey finally booted Alex Jones and Infowars off the site. We tried to stick to the facts.

I do think the platforms are taking steps, but what I would really like them to address is that they are now news organizations. Rather than media entertainment companies, they need to accept that they are owning the news, and it is time they begin to hire journalists and editors with a small percentage of the insane profits they reap in this new Attention Economy. This revenue, in the form of advertising fees, was what once funded local newsrooms, and that breakdown is part of the problem.

The Shorenstein Center’s Platform Accountability Project, IDLab, and Media Manipulation Case Studies Project are all working together to create a body of research and knowledge that will put pressure on the platforms and educate Congress on what is happening in the space. One way for people to join the effort is to fund our research at the Shorenstein Center. Our goal is to be at the intersection of media and politics and help inform legislation and policy around this urgent problem as we lead up to another Presidential election in 2020.

Kennedy: You describe an impressive set of initiatives by Google to help news organizations find their way toward financial sustainability and to keep disinformation out of its search results. Ultimately, though, I wonder if what Google really needs to do is work out a system of paying for the news content that it uses. I realize that’s probably outside the purview of your study, but do you have any thoughts on that?

Radford Legg: I write in the study that “one part of Google’s effort funds journalism while the other builds tools to sell back to them. Its approach is equal parts philanthropy and capitalism. Google’s tagline makes its intent clear: ‘To help journalism thrive in a digital age.’” The question remains, for whose benefit? Ours or their bottom line? I’m hoping for the former.

What I would really like to see is for the Google News Initiative, led by Richard Gingras, to fund a number of major research projects at leading media centers like ours around revenue models for local news. The Shorenstein Center’s Elizabeth Hansen has been studying membership models like the Texas Tribune and how small and medium-sized newsrooms compete in this global digital economy. Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Media Lab is working on a project that could share ad revenue from major platforms with the journalists or outlets that wrote a particular story. Take Flint, Michigan. The journalists who broke that story should get the largest financial gain. Today, that is not the case. Google, Facebook, and any platform or major outlet profiting from the story with clicks, should help support that local journalism.

The platforms have all the access today. Facebook alone has 2 billion users and a cash balance of $41 billion and market cap of $407 billion. Google has a cash balance of $106 billion and a market cap of $731 billion. They should start to pay and hire vetted reporters and editors steeped in the tenets of journalism — to report facts and first-person accounts. One might say it is time they grow up and be the civic leaders in the room.

Kennedy: As you note, the Berkman Klein Center has documented asymmetric polarization, which shows that consumers of right-wing media are far more susceptible to disinformation than those whose sources are more mainstream or left-leaning. What can we do about this without arousing suspicions — and anger — that we are simply seeking to impose our own liberal and elitist views?

Radford Legg: Again I go back to local news. If people who are being radicalized on the web by polarized content were instead reading about the people who live next to them and consuming news about their own city’s innovation, challenges, and progress, I believe the country would be better off and less divided. Without a trusted and reliable source on the ground in their local communities, Americans are susceptible to dogma being sold by harvesters of the Attention Economy, who are polluting the information ecosystem with untruths and content intended to polarize and divide our nation.

We should work harder to be inclusive with those in other areas of the country. As reporters, the more we can cover those stories, the better for democracy. My dream is to find paths to having journalists funded in those towns who understand the people and culture, and who can bring local back into the national conversation. This will require funding, and that is where the platforms should step up.

Kennedy: We live at a time when the president himself is our leading source of disinformation, and he has managed to convince his most committed followers that he is the ultimate source of all truth. How difficult is it to fight against disinformation in such a climate?

Radford Legg: At the Shorenstein Center’s Theodore H. White Lecture, I sat at a table with a number of our Joan Shorenstein Fellows, of whom you were one. We debated this. Should we cover the president or should we ignore him and instead cover local news and stories of progress? Should we ensure that headlines don’t repeat lies? The table was divided. But at what point do we turn away from the media circus and return to the basics? What is going on in your city hall? What ideas are changing the way you live and work in your city, town, state? What can we as a nation learn from what is going on in Corning, New York, or Beaufort, North Carolina, Portland, Oregon or Maine, or McLean County, Kentucky? I am a local kid. I think that is where the lifeblood of a democracy lives.

Kennedy: Is there any hope?

Radford Legg: Always.

Today, given the dire state of revenue models for local news, we need the wealthiest and most influential to fund and promote the research and innovation experiments desperately needed today in local journalism, and we need everyone who believes in journalism to get involved, vote, and help bridge the polarization. The late Gerry Lenfest’s legacy gift in Philadelphia is a case study many of us are watching in local news. He put the fabled Philadelphia Inquirer and sister properties into a trust and endowed it with $20 million. That’s commitment to local and that is hope. Let’s hope it inspires more of the same.

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Celebrating two decades of ‘Beat the Press’

For the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of something that has grown into a Boston institution: “Beat the Press,” a weekly media-criticism show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) launched by Emily Rooney in 1998.

On Friday night we celebrated with a half-hour retrospective followed by a Q&A on Facebook Live. It was an honor to be part of it. And it was great to see Emily get the credit she’s due both for conceiving of the show and for maintaining its excellence during the past two decades.

There are so many people who are part of the show, and I know that if I start listing them, I’ll leave out others who are just as deserving. You know who you are. I’m filled with appreciation and gratitude for all of you.

And I’m already looking forward to our 25th.

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My evening with Rachel and Sean; or, how cable makes polarization worse

Photo (cc) via Torange.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Rachel Maddow was excited. The host of cable news’ top-rated show could barely contain her glee Wednesday night over the news that President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had proven to be such a cooperative witness that special counsel Robert Mueller was recommending no jail time.

“Another few shoes are going to drop soon,” she told her viewers. She also pondered the mystery of why Trump never says anything critical about Flynn. “Not a peep about Mike Flynn since Flynn plead guilty and became a cooperator more than a year ago,” she said, adding, “There must be something else going on here. And, “The only other person he treats like this is freaking Putin!”

It was a different story on cable news’ second-highest-rated program. Sean Hannity was in full dudgeon over Mueller’s decision to go after Flynn for what Hannity called minor “process” crimes. Hannity instructed his viewers that Mueller had persecuted “a decorated military hero” for the sole purpose of building a phony case to drive Trump out of office.

“This is how desperate and how pathetic Robert Mueller is,” Hannity said, running through the reasons why Flynn might have decided to cooperate: finances ruined, his son facing possible jail time. “Is this,” Hannity asked, “what justice in America is supposed to look like to you?”

Welcome to the 2018 edition of the National Conversation. With the Mueller investigation on the verge of a possible denouement, I thought I’d spend Wednesday night watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Hannity.” Hyper-polarization may be tearing us apart, but at the cable news outlets, it’s good for business. According to Adweek’s TVNewser, Maddow’s program on MSNBC this past Tuesday drew nearly 3.5 million viewers, more than anyone else on cable news in prime time (8 to 11 p.m.). Hannity, on Fox News, gathered just under 2.9 million.

And surely it’s no accident that that MSNBC, which leans left, and Fox, which has embraced the hard right, are dominating prime time while CNN brings up the rear. Though CNN, like MSNBC, is harshly critical of Trump and regularly draws the White House’s ire, the network has attempted to maintain at least some of its former image as a nonpartisan purveyor of actual news. MSNBC and Fox, bound by no such scruples, are free to toss bleeding chunks of raw meat to their aging viewers.

It should be noted that all three cable outlets employ actual journalists who do good work. It’s just that they are rarely seen during prime time, especially on MSNBC and Fox. Instead, the three networks offer a full line-up of talk shows, nine hours a night. And the queen and king of those talk shows are Maddow and Hannity, whose 9 p.m. programs have become appointment viewing for political partisans of the left and right.

Lest I be accused of false equivalence, let me make it clear that Maddow, for all her opinionating and speculating, helms a show that is grounded in facts. She’s smart, and you often learn something. Over at Fox, though, the Trump presidency has pushed Hannity and other hosts into an alternative universe of dark conspiracy-mongering in which the Mueller investigation is nothing but a corrupt attempt by the “deep state” to destroy a great president because of his willingness to stand up to the establishment.

Thus did Wednesday’s edition feature a conversation between Hannity and John Solomon, an investigative columnist with The Hill, who this week reported on an “email chain”purportedly showing that former FBI director James Comey and other officials had obtained a FISA warrant under false pretenses so that they could surveil Trump associate Carter Page. Inconveniently, Solomon admitted to Hannity that he hadn’t actually seen the emails, although they have been “described” to him. All right, then.

Hannity was apoplectic, calling Solomon’s story proof of a “conscious fraud upon the court” and saying it showed that Comey was trying to tilt the election toward Hillary Clinton — never mind Comey’s late hit on Clinton, when he reopened the investigation into her emails and found nothing, a move that may well have cost her the election.

The rest of Hannity’s hour was taken up with a visit from Newt Gingrich, who called the Mueller investigation “an anti-constitutional effort by the organized left” and who congratulated Fox News for being the only media outlet willing to tell the truth; an immigration “debate” with fellow Fox host Geraldo Rivera (Hannity and Rivera both support Trump’s wall, but Rivera, unlike Hannity, would do something for the Dreamers); and, believe it or not, an update on the war on Christmas, perhaps Fox News’ most enduring creation.

Maddow’s program was considerably less toxic than Hannity’s but not necessarily any more nutritious. Other than Flynn, her main interest was the fate of Maria Butina, an accused Russian operative who, we learned, stood up at a Trump event in 2015 and apparently became the first person ever to ask the then-candidate whether he would lift sanctions against Russia. (Trump responded that he’d strongly consider it.) Butina, Maddow observed, may be the link uniting Russian money, the Trump campaign, and the National Rifle Association.

Maddow was also visited briefly by the ubiquitous Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California, who will soon become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Alex Isenstadt of Politico, who broke the news earlier this week that a foreign government had hacked the email accounts of several top Republican campaign officials.

Significantly, neither Maddow nor Hannity spent much time on the funeral of George H.W. Bush, which has brought a sense of unity to much of the country even if praise for the one-term president has been somewhat overwrought. Maddow, at least, provided a respectful overview of the day’s events. Hannity’s main interest was to bring on New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer so they could whine that Democratic praise for the late president was just another way of trashing Trump.

Cable news has long been a wasted opportunity. So much airtime. So little news. Imagine how it might be different. How about at least one hour of prime time combining news and analysis without any partisan overlay? I’m thinking of something like Anderson Cooper’s CNN program, only with more actual journalism. Or the “PBS NewsHour” with a zippier pace and better production values.

But no. Instead we have ideological talk-show hosts exploiting the passions of their audience for ratings and profits. It’s a sorry state of affairs — but one that perfectly reflects our deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions.

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Is community access TV on the FCC chopping block?

FCC chair Ajit Pai. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Federal Communications Commission has opened a new front in its war on behalf of corporations and against the public it purportedly serves. A proposed FCC rule that could take effect as early as December would drastically cut funding for community cable television stations — the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY local news reports.

The rule, pushed by the telecom industry, would allow cable providers to deduct the cost of local programming from the franchising fees they pay to cities and towns. According to Eli Sherman of GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local newspapers, groups like Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative lobbying organization, have argued that those fees result in artificially high prices for cable subscribers.

But Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), sees it differently. “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe,’” she said in an email interview. (Disclosure: I am a member of CCTV’s honorary board.)

At a time when local newspapers are shrinking beyond recognition, local cable stands out as a vital outlet for meeting the informational needs of communities. Because cable companies are assessed fees to support PEG (public, educational, and governmental) programming on a per-subscriber basis, operations in some of the larger cities and towns are pretty robust. The Boston Neighborhood Network, as the city’s community TV effort is known, even has a half-hour nightly newscast produced in collaboration with journalism students at Boston University.

What’s at stake if the FCC has its way, says CCTV’s Fleischmann, is “the elimination or curtailment of one of the few remaining non-commercial free speech media platforms.” In Cambridge, she adds, that includes services such as training for hundreds of community residents who produce “thousands of hours of hyper-local news, current affairs, and entertainment,” the 27-year-old Youth Media Program, and coverage of local events.

Says Darlene Beal, executive director of HC Media in Haverhill: “Any reduction in funding for PEG hurts the entire community, especially as local news and information becomes scarcer. A funding cut as drastic as proposed by the FCC could reduce PEG to little more than a closet full of old out-of-date camera equipment. By that, I mean that the thriving community PEG organizations that provide media services to cities across Massachusetts will not exist in their current form.”

Despite the threat posed by the FCC’s proposed rule, coverage has been scarce and mainly relegated to local newspapers, although Boston 25 recently took on the issue. U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., recently sent a letter to FCC chair Ajit Pai raising concerns about the rule, writing:

Our constituents watch PEG channels to monitor local government proceedings, hear the latest news from nearby college campuses, and consume other locally produced programming including emergency alerts and directives. Your proposal may jeopardize these important functions. We encourage you and your colleagues on the Commission to ensure that any final decision will not threaten the sustainability of PEG stations.

In one sense, community cable is yesterday’s technology. Local stations are already under threat as increasing numbers of households cut the cord, dropping cable in favor of internet streaming services. Both Fleischmann and Beal say they are working to broaden their funding sources and distribution outlets, posting their content on their own websites, on YouTube, and on social media.

But funding from cable operators remains key. At the very least, local stations need time to make the transition to a post-cable world rather than suffering a drastic reduction immediately.

“We have long realized that the days of cable television, as we knew it, are coming to an end,” says Fleischmann. “The primary challenges are the loss of funding, as well as the need to find new distribution models for programming created by the community. CCTV has prioritized the diversification of our funding sources, yet we are still about 75 percent reliant on cable funding.”

So what can you do? Unfortunately, the FCC’s public comments window closed on Nov. 14. But you can email the FCC commissioners, whose contact information is listed here. Or you can try to send a “reply comment,” as CCTV suggests. Not that we should expect much. FCC chair Pai’s push to repeal net neutrality was successful even though there was a public outcry in favor of keeping the rule, which banned internet service providers from discriminating against certain types of internet traffic by slowing it down or charging more.

Local television is part of the glue that binds communities together. Whether you watch it a lot, a little, or never, you need it. Let’s try to save it.

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The latest low: The bully-in-chief appoints a judge who supports dwarf-tossing

Candidate Trump mocks a disabled reporter in 2016.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing. Rao’s peculiar obsession with the practice of throwing short-statured people against Velcro walls was reported late last week by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones.

As you might imagine, Rao, a veteran right-wing activist currently serving in the Trump administration, does not claim to take part in this humiliating and dangerous practice. Rather, she has argued on several occasions that dwarf-tossing should be a matter of choice, writing that it should be up to the tossee whether picking up a few bucks in some shady barroom is worth the risk to his health and his self-respect.

Rao explained her views several years ago at The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian legal blog, in which she criticized a ruling in France against a little person who wanted to take part in dwarf-tossing. Rao wrote that it “demonstrates how a substantive understanding of dignity can be used to coerce individuals by forcing upon them a particular understanding of dignity irrespective of their individual choices.” She added:

The issue is not whether laws prohibiting dwarf throwing, burqa wearing, prostitution, or pornography may be desirable social policy. Rather these examples demonstrate that the conception of dignity used to defend such policies is not that of human agency and freedom of choice, but rather represents a particular moral view of what dignity requires. These laws do not purport to maximize individual freedom, but instead regulate how individuals must behave in order to maintain dignity (and in the case of criminal prohibitions, stay out of jail).

The individual-rights argument may seem appealing. But it ignores all kinds of activities that society has decided to ban or regulate in order to protect not just the person taking part in those activities but also the rest of us — prostitution, as Rao notes, as well as drug use, cockfighting, underage drinking, casino gambling (until recently), practicing medicine without a license, and driving on the wrong side of the street. So it is with dwarf-tossing, which not only puts the person being tossed at risk of injury because of the spinal abnormalities present in most forms of dwarfism but also places others with dwarfism in harm’s way by normalizing a practice that should be considered beyond the pale.

I have skin in this game, though I hardly consider it a game. Our daughter, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. My 2003 book, “Little People,” examines the culture and history of the dwarfism. Among the people I interviewed was Doyle Harris, a dispatcher at the University of Louisville and a former official with Little People of America, an organization for dwarfs and their families. As I wrote in the book:

Nearly twenty years ago, he [Harris] and some friends were waiting outside a Louisville nightclub. It was right around the time that dwarf-tossing — an Australian import that rears its ugly head wherever drunk, stupid men in their twenties gather — had first come to the attention of the media. “One of these guys came out — he was a little inebriated — and he went, ‘Oh, they’re going to have dwarf-tossing tonight. Well, let me practice,'” Harris recalled. “And the next thing I know, the guy literally picks me up and throws me out onto the grass. It was not a good situation. It was very demeaning to me. I was in fairly nice clothes, I was looking to go out, and I’m out in the grass, rolling around, getting grass stains and muddy. It was totally against my will.”

Florida, at one time the locus of dwarf-tossing in the United States, banned the practice in 1989. Incredibly, a state legislator proposed lifting the ban in 2011, dredging up the tiresome freedom-of-choice argument. As Angela Van Etten, a lawyer with dwarfism whose work helped lead to the original ban, wrote in The Huffington Post: “Dwarf tossing appeals to a lower instinct in people and creates a hostile environment in which Little People are disrespected and ridiculed. It legitimizes bully behavior.”

Exactly. Yet we now live in an environment in which bullying is not only condoned but indulged in by the president. In that respect, Neomi Rao seems like the perfect Trump appointment. According to Mother Jones, in addition to her fervor for dwarf-tossing, she holds retrograde views on LGBTQ rights and affirmative action and is an anti-regulation zealot. She should not be confirmed. But who will stop her?

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