Media roundup: The EPA’s toxic proposal; getting readers to pay; and Danny Schechter’s activist legacy

John Travolta as the lawyer Jan Schlichtmann in “A Civil Action.”

Previously published at

The overwhelming crush of news emanating from the Trump administration makes it all but impossible to give more than passing attention to some of its worst and most damaging acts.

It can’t be helped. Though you could argue that the media pay too much attention to the president’s sociopathic Twitter feed, you certainly can’t fault journalists for focusing on the childish insults he has directed at Justin Trudeau and his embrace of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un. To its credit, the press has also managed to provide reasonably comprehensive coverage of the administration’s inhumane treatment of refugee families.

But when you get down to wonkish issues like industry-backed changes in the way that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates toxic substances, well, good luck finding the sort of coverage that truly commands attention and sparks outrage. And yes, I’m going to recount some information I learned from a story that appeared on the front page of The New York Times last week, so this is not exactly a secret. But we all know that without amplification from the media echo chamber in the form of follow-up stories, cable news chatter, and the like, important stories tend to fade away pretty quickly.

The Times article, by Eric Lipton, grabbed my attention for a very specific reason: During the 1980s I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, where I reported on families whose children became sick with leukemia — some fatally so — after the city water supply was contaminated with industrial solvents. The families sued the likely polluters, leading to a federal trial that was featured in Jonathan Harr’s riveting book “A Civil Action.” (The book was made into a less-than-riveting movie of the same name.)

A variety of chemicals were at issue in the Woburn case, but the two most important were trichloroethylene (a degreaser) and tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene, used in dry cleaning) — both of which are now on the list of substances the EPA wants to ease up on. According to Lipton’s story, the EPA, acting at the behest of the chemical industry, may abandon an Obama-era initiative to measure the effect of these hazardous chemicals in the ground, water, and air, focusing instead on workplace exposure. Yet contaminated drinking water was precisely what was at issue in Woburn.

“The approach is a big victory for the chemical industry, which has repeatedly pressed the EPA to narrow the scope of its risk evaluations,” writes Lipton, who notes that Nancy Beck, the Trump appointee in charge of the initiative, “previously worked as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, one of the industry’s main lobbying groups.”

The 1986 federal case did not end well for the Woburn families — they settled out of court for short money after the trial ended in a muddle. But they left a legacy regarding what can happen when industry is allowed to dispose of toxic waste without regard for safety or health. Now that legacy is under attack. The media need to shine a light on this story — and to keep shining it until the EPA backs down.

An ambitious challenge

There was a time not too many years ago when newspaper owners hoped they would develop an advertising-based business model for online content that would allow them to earn profits while giving away their journalism. Craigslist, Google, and Facebook put an end to those dreams. In recent years, the emphasis has been on persuading readers to pay for digital news.

Now The Sacramento Bee has issued a challenge to its readers. Editor Lauren Gustus has written a note calling for digital subscriptions to quadruple, from 15,000 to 60,000. “We could fully fund our newsrooms — from salaries and benefits to notepads and pens — if we had 60,000 people supporting us through digital subscriptions,” she says.

Needless to say, that is a hugely ambitious goal. Though national newspapers such as The New York Times (3 million-plus) and The Washington Post (1 million-plus) have had some real success with digital subscriptions, regional papers have struggled. The Boston Globe, with nearly 100,000 digital-only subscriptions, has done as well as anyone. But though Globe executives say the paper could become sustainable if they double that number, that will likely prove to be an exceedingly difficult task.

Still, the Bee has some factors in its favor. According to Gustus’ message, the paper is bolstering its coverage with more accountability journalism and an audio newscast. Its owner, McClatchy, is widely regarded as one of the better corporate chains. And the price of a digital subscription — $130 a year — is affordable, especially compared with the Globe’s $360.

The best part about reader-funded journalism is that, if it works, owners will be wary of slashing their news coverage. People will pay more for more; they might even pay more for the same. But they’re not going to pay more for less.

Honoring Parkland’s student journalists

The third annual Danny — an honor named for the late, great progressive journalist Danny Schechter — has been awarded to The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The award was announced by Rory O’Connor, Schechter’s friend and longtime business partner.

O’Connor writes in AlterNet that The Eagle Eye was singled out for comments by its student journalists that they sought to combine journalism with activism aimed at preventing mass shootings such as the one that took place at their school. Although some observers criticized the students for not embracing objectivity, O’Connor says that activist journalism is in the best tradition of the work performed by Schechter, “The News Dissector,” starting in the early 1970s at WBCN Radio in Boston and continuing until his death in 2015.

The award comes with a $3,000 donation to the paper’s journalism scholarship fund.

“Increasingly,” O’Connor writes, “it is becoming understood that journalists with strong, transparent points of view are giving us news and insights we truly need and can use.”

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Globe watch: A lawyer’s lament, and Stat’s discontents

Two items of note regarding The Boston Globe.

1. Eric MacLeish, a prominent lawyer who represented numerous victims of pedophile priests, is objecting to his portrayal in the movie “Spotlight.” An item in the Globe’s “Names” column notes, “Curiously, MacLeish hasn’t seen the movie.” Yet someone must have given MacLeish a good briefing, as the bill of particulars he posted on Facebook is pretty accurate in summarizing his character in the film: a lawyer who reached confidential settlements with the Catholic Church on behalf of his clients, thus helping to delay the truth from coming out.

Also of note is that Stephen Kurkjian, a legendary Globe investigative reporter who also does not come off well in “Spotlight,” has posted a comment saying in part: “I can attest to how committed you [MacLeish] were — within the confines of attorney-client relationships — to assisting The Globe in getting the story out.”

Of course, such complaints are to be expected when a fictional movie is made about a real-life story and actual people. I experienced this first-hand when the movie about the Woburn toxic-waste story, “A Civil Action,” came out. (I covered the story for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn.) I was so incensed by some of what I saw that I wrote about it for The New Republic.

“Spotlight” is a far better — and truer — movie than “A Civil Action.” But it’s not a documentary.

2. Craig Douglas of The Boston Business Journal reports that the Newspaper Guild has some issues with Stat, a website covering health, medicine and life sciences that is part of John Henry’s Boston Globe Media holdings.

As I wrote last week for, Stat launched with about 40 journalists just weeks after the Globe eliminated about 40 newsroom positions through buyouts and layoffs. The two developments are said to be unrelated in the sense that Henry is not funding Stat through cuts at the Globe. As Gideon Gil, Stat’s managing editor for enterprise and partnerships, told me, each property has to pursue its own business plan.

Still, Douglas reports, it has not gone unnoticed that union jobs at the Globe have been eliminated while positions at Stat are non-union. Douglas quotes an anonymous union official as saying: “The feeling is, those weren’t the last layoffs we’re going to see. It feels like they are trying to expand by killing us from inside.”

Surely Henry can’t be blamed for making cuts in a shrinking business while trying to find innovative ideas that could lead to growth and profitability. But it’s not hard to sympathize with the fears voiced in Douglas’ article.

Parole in police officer’s murder not so easy

Officer Maguire

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems that the media and elected officials alike have been somewhat guarded in criticizing the state Parole Board for releasing Dominic Cinelli, a violent career criminal who murdered Woburn police officer John Maguire last week.

Yes, everyone is saying what you would expect. The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald have both published editorials saying the board erred in releasing Cinelli. Yes, the board made a huge mistake in not notifying the Middlesex County district attorney’s office before the 2008 hearing at which Cinelli’s parole was approved. And Cinelli, whom a dying Maguire shot to death in the course of an attempted robbery at Kohl’s, seems to have been an unusually poor risk.

Here is another wrinkle. According to a report by Gordon Vincent of Woburn’s Daily Times Chronicle, Cinelli would not have been eligible for parole until 2023 were it not for a decision by the state Appeals Court that overturned a ruling made by the Parole Board regarding the start date of Cinelli’s sentence.

Yet today’s Globe story by Jonathan Saltzman includes some facts worth pondering:

  • The Parole Board apparently did not think releasing Cinelli was a close call, as it voted 6-0 in favor. Of those six (three appointed by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and three by Republican governors), two were retired police officers and one worked in the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Department. In other words, it doesn’t sound like the board can be caricatured as a bunch of soft-on-crime types.
  • About 6,000 inmates are granted parole every year, which suggests that the county and state prison systems could be thrown into chaos if parole standards were tightened significantly.
  • Since 2005, according to Saltzman’s reporting, the board has granted parole to about two-thirds of those applying, and to somewhere between 27 percent and 40 percent of the lifers seeking parole, depending on the year.
  • Lifers and older inmates, Saltzman reports, tend to pose the lowest risk of recidivism. Cinelli was 57 when he shot Officer Maguire.

The death of Jack Maguire, a 60-year-old policeman on the verge of retirement, is a terrible tragedy. Back in the 1980s, I covered Woburn for the Daily Times Chronicle, and though I did not know Maguire, I knew of him. I did know the future police chief, Philip Mahoney, an impressive, compassionate policeman who has served as an outstanding spokesman for his city’s grief this week.

It may well turn out that the Parole Board made a mistake in releasing Cinelli. We already know that it made a mistake by not giving the district attorney a chance to testify. But the issue is not as simple as locking up people like Cinelli and throwing away the key.

Based on the Globe’s reporting, it appears that inmates whose past crimes were as serious as Cinelli’s are released regularly, and that society benefits. The investigation that’s now under way is the right way to go, and the media should give it a chance to play out — as they seem to be doing so far. The situation calls for intelligent analysis, not a witch hunt.

Differing perspectives on a cancer study

Why does it matter for a community to have a variety of journalistic voices? We could all point to any number of examples. But the example I want to discuss here is a story about brain cancer among Pratt & Whitney employees in Greater New Haven.

On June 3, researchers who conducted a $12 million study paid for by Pratt & Whitney reported they had found no conclusive evidence that employees had been diagnosed with brain cancer at rates high enough to be statistically significant in comparison to the general population.

The next day, the New Haven Register published an article by Ann DeMatteo under the headline “No cancer link found at P&W, but slight ‘excess’ seen at North Haven plant.” DeMatteo’s lede:

Researchers say that except for a few cases in the former Pratt & Whitney Aircraft plant in North Haven, the amount of brain cancer among Pratt employees is no different from or lower than the general population.

Later that day, the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site, posted a story by Carole Bass that took an entirely different angle, as you can tell from the headline: “Despite Hype, Pratt Study Shows Cancer Increase.” Her lede:

Pratt & Whitney Aircraft got its message out today, burying evidence of higher cancer rates at a local factory.

Bass criticizes the Register and the Hartford Courant for essentially adopting P&W’s spin, and lays out an argument that though there is still much to be learned, there may well indeed be a link between workplace exposure — especially at a former jet-engine plant in North Haven — and higher-than-normal rates of brain cancer.

Among other things, we learn from Bass’ story that a “blue haze” of coolant mist hung over the workplace in North Haven. As someone who covered the Woburn leukemia story in the 1980s, I can tell you that links between coolants and cancer have long been suspected, even if there is no definitive proof. (Odd fact: Paul Bass and Jonathan Harr, the author of “A Civil Action,” an award-winning book about the Woburn case, worked together at one time. Harr and I covered the Woburn case together.)

At this point I should tell you that I was Carole and Paul Bass’ dinner guest on June 3, as I was in New Haven for my ongoing research on the Independent and other community news sites. Paul is the Independent’s founder and editor. Carole told me that evening that she’d been covering the P&W story for some years, and was planning to write about the new report.

Both the Register and the Independent published accurate stories. The Register’s story hews strictly to the traditional rules of objectivity. The Independent’s adds analysis, perspective (I was interested to learn of the possible role of something called the “healthy-worker effect,”) and some opinion, along with solid reporting.

(Bass’ story was later published in the New Haven Advocate, an alternative weekly where both Basses have worked in the past.)

Which is more useful? Personally, I’d opt for analysis and perspective over coverage of a meeting. But I think the community was well-served by having both kinds of stories.

A landmark in database reporting

The Times' Google map of Massachusetts water facilities

Every editor in the United States today should be poring over the database that the New York Times assembled — and put online — to accompany its horrifying story on the disastrous state of our public water supplies.

Good as the Times story is, the paper’s decision to go open source with its data is what really makes this stand out. Searchable and state and by zip code, you can look up water facilities and their inspection records in recent years. If I were an editor, I’d want to make sure I got to the bottom of every one of those inspection reports before a citizen journalist could beat me to it.

In the Times story, by Charles Duhigg, we learn about the family of Jennifer Hall-Massey. She, her husband and their two boys live near Charleston, W. Va., where coal companies have so polluted the water supply that people’s teeth are wearing away and simple exposure causes painful skin rashes. Hall-Massey blames a number of deaths and illnesses on the water supply as well.

My former Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi has done some groundbreaking reporting on coal and the environment for the Center for Public Integrity. Highly recommended.

Water is one of the great untold stories in environmental journalism. I spent a good part of the 1980s covering the Woburn toxic-waste case, made famous in Jonathan Harr’s book “A Civil Action” and a subsequent movie.

Unfortunately, the families whose children suffered from leukemia and other health problems were not able to prove their case, and ended up reaching an unsatisfying settlement with one of the suspected polluters, W.R. Grace.

Because of Woburn and Love Canal, water was a big story in the late 1970s and ’80s. It’s time for it to take its rightful place again. The Times’ package should be just the beginning. Fortunately, it has provided the tools necessary for every news organization to find out what’s happening locally.