Monday, February 28, 2005

DONE DEAL. The Lowell Sun reports that UMass Lowell radio station WUML (91.5 FM) is moving ahead with plans to broadcast former WBUR host Christopher Lydon and Lowell Spinners baseball games. (Thanks to Media Log reader A.R.)

The students who run the station reportedly turned out at an emotionally charged meeting last week, at which university official Lou DiNatale (when did he move up there?) said, "We don't want this winner-take-all thing where the students run the whole thing or the administration runs the whole thing. We really want some kind of a merger."

That makes sense, provided it's carried out in the right way.

Two observations:

1. The Lydon announcement is obviously the most interesting. Supposedly Lydon, the founding host of The Connection, will helm a one-hour nightly talk show. Presumably it will be syndicated. Media Log Central is actually a whole lot closer to Lowell than Boston is, yet I can't pick up WUML when driving around the North Shore. A podcast would be nice, too. "Podcasts are thoroughly interesting to me," Lydon tells the Globe's Scott Kirsner today.

2. The Spinners deal strikes me as more dubious. According to the Sun, up until now the Spinners have been carried on WCAP (AM 980), a commercial station. That seems right. The Spinners, after all, are a private, profit-making business, and I'm not sure a public station such as WUML ought to be getting involved with them. For what it's worth, North Shore Spirit baseball games are carried on WESX Radio (AM 1230) and seem to do very well.

TRIBUTE TO BRUDNOY. Yesterday's memorial service for the late talk-radio legend David Brudnoy was a deeply moving event. The Globe's Michael Levenson's account is online here.

The highlights: the graceful manner in which Brudnoy's former radio colleague Peter Meade presided over the nearly three-hour testimonial; a few brief words from Brudnoy's on-air successor, Paul Sullivan, who is himself battling cancer; and a quiet, heartfelt tribute from Brudnoy's best friend, Ward Cromer.

What was especially moving, though, were the numerous photos and video clips of Brudnoy over the years, accompanied by music recorded by Brudnoy's cousin Sharon Isbin, an internationally renowed classical guitarist. The service closed with excerpts from that astonishing interview Brudnoy gave as he lay dying at Massachusetts General Hospital last December.

"Don't wait until people die to tell them you love them," the raspy-voiced Brudnoy was heard saying throughout Emerson College's Cutler Majestic Theatre. "We tend to be very stingy about that."

Saturday, February 26, 2005

MITT'S ANTI-FAMILY APPEAL. Q: What's the difference between Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney? A: Hatch is the liberal. Check out this morning's Salt Lake Tribune, in which the Utah senator and Calvin Coolidge look-alike explains his support for embryonic-stem-cell research. Romney, of course, has come out against such research as he moves forward with his campaign for president and against the people of Massachusetts.

But the surest sign that Romney has decided not to run for re-election as governor in 2006 is his increasingly strident rhetoric about same-sex marriage, and even civil unions. It's true that Romney has never favored either one. But last spring, when the issue was being hashed out on Beacon Hill, Romney could have played a significant obstructionist role and chose not to. Good for him. Now, though, he's re-inventing himself as the Mormon version of James Dobson, and it's unattractive, to say the least.

Today, both the Globe and the Herald report on Romney's remarks in Salt Lake City yesterday, in which he called the Goodridge decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which legalized gay marriage, as a "blow to the family," and said: "America cannot continue to lead the family of nations around the world if we suffer the collapse of the family here at home." Ugh.

Julie and Hillary Goodridge immediately came forward and read a statement making the common-sense observation that gay marriage has made it a lot easier for some families to attain the recognition and equality they deserve. But Romney was clearly not directing his remarks at the home-state audience. Rather, he's trying to appeal to the hardcore right-wingers who control the presidential nominating process in the Republican Party.

The Salt Lake Tribune covers Romney's remarks here; and the Deseret News here. Locally, Susan Ryan-Vollmar tears into Romney in this week's Bay Windows.

I believe it was Globe columnist Scot Lehigh a couple of years ago who first noted the phenomenon of Romney campaigning against the very state he purportedly governs. Still, until this past week, I had thought Romney would seek re-election in 2006, since a big win would probably stand as his surest credentials for a presidential run. Now it seems pretty obvious that he's decided otherwise.

By campaigning against gay and lesbian families, Romney is hurting himself with the suburban independents who elected him in 2002. If you took a survey of these people, they might tell you they don't like the idea of gay marriage, although they'd probably support civil unions. But that's not really the point. This is all about tone. Most people have a gay child or sibling or co-worker or three. And whether they love the idea of same-sex marriage or not, they're not going to like the idea of the governor they voted for publicly trashing their family members and friends.

Gay marriage has been legal for almost a year now, and the sky hasn't fallen in. By all indications, Massachusetts is becoming increasingly comfortable with it. And now Romney wants to drag us backwards. It might wow them in South Carolina and Utah, but it's not going to wow anyone here (nor, I suspect, in notoriously libertarian New Hampshire in '08).

So, see ya, Mitt. And here's a distinctly minority point of view: if Romney leaves early and Kerry Healey gets to become governor, she's going to make folks forget her predecessor in about two weeks. (I mean that in a good way.)

Friday, February 25, 2005

JEFF GANNON'S GOT A BLOG. He writes: "I'm baaaaaaack! If you thought I was going to slink away - then you don't know much about me. Someone still has to battle the Left and now that I've emerged from the crucible, I'm stronger than before."

And he links to a fine commentary by the Nation's David Corn (which he misspells "Korn") on why he can't get all worked up about Gannongate. Media Log almost always agrees with Corn - and this time is no exception.

ABORTION RITES. The creepiest story of the day - and perhaps a sign of what's to come - is the news that Kansas attorney general Phill Kline is trying to obtain the records of women and girls who've received late-term abortions. According to the New York Times (check out this blog-friendly permanent link), Kline wants the documents as part of a statutory-rape investigation. But Kline is a pro-life activist, and it's telling that he's taking flack from pro-choice forces and winning praise from pro-lifers.

According to the Times' Jodi Wilgoren, Kline "also spoke obliquely of other crimes that court documents suggest could include doctors' providing illegal late-term abortions." Hmmm.

The Wichita Eagle publishes an editorial today that gets right to the point. Some highlights:

The clinics offered to give the attorney general copies with irrelevant private information blacked out. But that apparently wasn't good enough. Why not, if the purpose is to prosecute criminals, not harass women who have sought abortions?

Why focus on records of patients who had late-term abortions, after 22 weeks - even though many underage teens presumably obtain abortions sooner - if the intention is to punish sexual predators, not late-term abortion providers?

And if sexual abuse of children is the issue, then why doesn't Mr. Kline also subpoena others with access to information about underage sex - school nurses, doctors, social workers - to turn over private records?


But given the attorney general's close political ties with anti-abortion activists, this latest campaign seems designed to add to an atmosphere of hostility and harassment faced daily by abortion providers - who, whatever one might think of abortion, are offering a medical service that is legal and protected under Kansas statute.

Is this sort of thing likely to become more common? Sadly, the answer is probably yes.

THE MISSING CONTEXT. Christopher Cooper and John McKinnon have an excellent story in today's Wall Street Journal on what a nutty show the daily White House briefings have become. They write: "Once the clubby preserve of big-name newspapers and networks, it has lately become a political stage where a growing assortment of reporters, activists and bloggers function not only as journalists but as participants in a unique form of reality TV."

That's why I just can't get outraged over the Jeff Gannon saga. Amused, of course. And somewhat perturbed about the hypocrisy, given what we know what would have happened if, say, Bill Clinton had allowed a ringer who was a former prostitute into the White House press room. But outraged - you've got to be kidding.

BAILEY V. BLEIDT. The Boston Herald's Greg Gatlin has more on Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey's complaint against his erstwhile former part-time employer, Brad Bleidt, the admitted scam artist who once ran WBIX Radio (AM 1060).

Thursday, February 24, 2005

IS MARIO CUOMO PRO-LIFE? More to the point, is Mitt Romney? I don't think anyone in his right mind would describe Cuomo's nuanced position on abortion rights as being "pro-life." And if Cuomo's not, then neither is Romney.

The essence of the Cuomo position is as follows: he's personally opposed to abortion, but he also opposes efforts to outlaw abortion rights. The former New York governor discussed this as recently as last June, on The NewsHour:

[T]he question really is, are you in communion with your church if, for example, you're a Catholic who accepts the abortion teaching, as I did, and lived by it for say 50 years, which I have, but refuses to take the position that now I have to make the whole society of non-Catholics, non-believers, and even those Catholics who do not accept abortion; I have to impose the law upon them or attempt to.

Plain and simple, Cuomo is pro-choice. It doesn't matter what his or any other politician's personal beliefs are. If they support a woman's right to choose, they're pro-choice. Is this difficult? I didn't think so.

Of course, now Romney - long thought to have repositioned himself from pro-life to pro-choice for his 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy - now appears to be trying to move back to being thought of as a pro-life Republican. He's doing this at a time when he is obviously becoming obsessed with running for president in 2008.

Romney set off a mild furor with his Monday-night speech in Spartanburg, South Carolina, speaking out more strongly against gay civil unions than he has in the past, repeating his opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research, and flirting with the "pro-life" phrase, which, unfortunately, is pretty much a necessity to run in the Republican primaries. Today the Boston Globe's Raphael Lewis quotes Romney as saying:

I don't really describe my position in one hyphenated word, I describe the same thing I have for some time during this last campaign, and that is that I personally do not favor abortion. I'm personally prolife, if you will. But as the governor of the Commonwealth, I will not change the prochoice laws of the Commonwealth. I will support them, sustain them, keep them in place. And we haven't changed the laws, and I will not change the laws as long as I'm governor.

Earth to Mitt: there's a word for this, and yes, it's hyphenated: pro-choice. You may not like it. Many of us who favor abortion rights have always wondered about your sincerity. But you've been in politics now for more than a decade, and you've stuck with it - so much so that, when there was a flurry of interest in your running for governor of Utah a few years ago, some of your supporters were urging you to run as a Democrat.

Romney will get a chance to show us where he's at soon enough. As David Guarino notes in today's Boston Herald, a bill making it easier for a woman to obtain a "morning after" pill will soon land on his desk.

In the meantime, let's keep in mind that no one likes abortion. That's why Bill and Hillary Clinton have talked about making it "safe, legal, and rare," and why Cuomo has always been careful to underscore his personal opposition. But the Clintons and Cuomo are obviously pro-choice. And so is Romney. So far.

BURYING THE LEAD. Check out the last two paragraphs of Jeffrey Krasner's report in today's Globe on the investigation into the tangled finances of investment charlatan/radio entrepreneur Brad Bleidt:

The receiver's report also said that Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey, who cohosted a morning show on the radio station [WBIX], filed a claim against Bleidt, one of his businesses, Asset Plus Asset Management, and an affiliated brokerage. Bailey filed his claim with the National Association of Securities Dealers, an industry group and self-regulatory body. The nature of Bailey's claims was not clear from the receiver's report.

In a Feb. 2 letter, Bailey told NASD he wouldn't pursue claims against Bleidt or Asset Plus Asset Management. Bailey declined to comment on the matter.

The Herald reports on the Bleidt blight here.

NEW IN THIS WEEK'S PHOENIX. Thoughts on Jeff Gannon and the squeamish mainstream media. Also, is the Herald for sale? And a piss fight breaks out over who's a "self-hating" Jew.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

THE LOWELL CONNECTION. Would Greater Boston be better off if WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) were run by Boston University students? Of course not. Former general manager Jane Christo had the insight that the station could serve the entire community with news and information programming. As commercial radio increasingly gave up on any notions of public service and localism, 'BUR grew into a vital media resource.

So it was with some mixed feelings this morning that I read Greg Gatlin's account in the Boston Herald of the battle over the UMass Lowell student radio station, WUML (91.5 FM). According to Gatlin, the university, having tried and failed with a morning show produced by the Lowell Sun, is now seeking to expand its non-student offerings, with Lowell Spinners baseball games and - get this - possibly a program to be hosted by Christopher Lydon. Lydon, of course, was fired by WBUR in 2001 in the midst of an ugly public showdown with Christo.

"Help Save Your Station" is the message on the WUML website. The statement, which urges students to contact university administrators, says in part:

This decision was made without any input from the students who run WUML, and have done so for the past 52 years. Our radio station is funded through the student activities department, whose funds come from student fees.

Student fees shouldn't be used to fund the university's ambitions for a radio station with broader reach. On the other hand, a radio station - particularly one not owned by Clear Channel or one of the other big chains - is a precious community resource. I'm sympathetic to the students, but they're not the only ones affected by this.

The university has something that is very difficult to get: a license from the FCC. There ought to be a way for that license to benefit the residents of Greater Lowell as well as the students at UMass. And wouldn't it be great for Lydon to be back on the air? With Christo gone, it's not inconceivable that a syndicated Lydon show could be picked up by - yes, WBUR.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A TWO-DAILY TOWN. Eagle-eyed Media Log reader A.S. points to two headlines in today's papers.

"Snow Doesn't Drive Down Sales" - Boston Herald

"Snowstorm Puts a Freeze on Auto Sales" - Boston Globe

Even better: auto dealer Ernie Boch Jr. is a major source in both stories.

Monday, February 21, 2005

HUNTER S. THOMPSON, 1937-2005. One of the great chroniclers of the 1960s and beyond has committed suicide at the age of 67. The San Francisco Chronicle has the details.

Like a generation of readers, I revere his 1971 drugs-and-paranoia-fueled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And if there has ever been a better presidential-campaign book than Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, I am not aware of it. You never knew whether a lot of the stuff Thompson wrote was real or made-up - and unlike lesser lights, Thompson didn't try to fool you one way or the other. But Thompson's work was always true, far truer than the objective journalism of his day.

The last Thompson book I read was Generation of Swine, a collection of his columns in the 1980s for the San Francisco Examiner. It had its moments, but though the fire hadn't quite burned out, it certainly wasn't burning as hot as it had earlier in his career.

A true story: in the mid '70s, I was working as a Northeastern co-op student for the Woonsocket (Rhode Island) Call. George McGovern was speaking at Suffolk University, and I had a chance to shout a question at him afterwards. I remembered that Thompson, in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, had portrayed McGovern's first running mate, Senator Tom Eagleton, as being far more mentally ill than had ever been publicly acknowledged. In that light, Thompson saw McGovern's decision to replace Eagleton with Sargent Shriver as patriotic rather than politically craven, since McGovern had privately concluded that he could not allow Eagleton to get into a position where he might actually become president.

I asked McGovern whether Thompson's account was correct. McGovern thought for a moment before calmly replying: yes. I felt like I had a scoop of sorts.

(Note: For all I know, this is brutally unfair to Eagleton. We know far more about mental illness today than we did in the '70s. I am simply reporting what Thompson wrote, and McGovern's reaction to it.)

Perhaps Thompson's last great piece of political writing was his 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon, published in Rolling Stone under the headline "He Was a Crook." Unfortunately, it's been disappeared behind the Atlantic Monthly's subscription-only website. But here is Thompson on the campaign trail '04:

Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush. Indeed. Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?

If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a "liberal" candidate, and he would probably win. He was a crook and a bungler, but what the hell? Nixon was a barrel of laughs compared to this gang of thugs from the Halliburton petroleum organization who are running the White House today - and who will be running it this time next year, if we (the once-proud, once-loved and widely respected "American people") don't rise up like wounded warriors and whack those lying petroleum pimps out of the White House on November 2nd.

Nixon hated running for president during football season, but he did it anyway. Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for - but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.

You bet. Richard Nixon would be my Man. He was a crook and a creep and a gin-sot, but on some nights, when he would get hammered and wander around in the streets, he was fun to hang out with. He would wear a silk sweat suit and pull a stocking down over his face so nobody could recognize him. Then we would get in a cab and cruise down to the Watergate Hotel, just for laughs.

Read the whole thing. And mourn.

CHINLUND KICKS BUTT. Mild-mannered Boston Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund today (1) calls for the Globe to dump unfunny right-wing comic strip Mallard Fillmore and (2) calls columnist Cathy Young's recent characterization of Eric Alterman's views as those of a "self-hating" Jew as being "not up to op-ed page standards," as well as "ad hominem and inappropriate." (Click here and here for background.)

Young herself writes about other matters.

IT DEPENDS ON WHERE YOU SIT. Here is New York Times sports columnist Murray Chass today on the matter of the Red Sox v. A-Rod:

In this new version of "Get the good guy," the Red Sox are blameless. One player, Trot Nixon, ignited the game with negative comments about Rodriguez last week and a torrent of teammates have followed. But the teammates' comments have not been unsolicited. They were at the urging of reporters eager to inflame the game to incendiary levels. They were all but handed a script.

Athletes have long accused reporters of creating stories, and, sadly, this is one of those instances. It has become one of the most distasteful instances I have witnessed in 45 years of covering baseball.

And here is Boston Herald columnist Howard Bryant (sub. req.):

The Sox spent the first week of spring training assaulting Alex Rodriguez, who arrived at Yankees camp yesterday battling a half-dozen Red Sox who haven't forgotten The Fight or forgiven The Slap.

Trot Nixon called him a clown. Curt Schilling doesn't like the guy. In a particularly rich moment, Kevin Millar said he doesn't like Rodriguez drawing attention to himself. Jason Varitek has already punched him. Bronson Arroyo feels condescended to by him. David Wells hated hearing Rodriguez talk like he was part of the dynasty.

The vitriol toward Rodriguez is real. The Sox have turned the relationship into a street fight, one that Rodriguez, who brought much of this on himself, made clear yesterday he's not interested in joining.

Well, I imagine that one of them is right.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

NOTES ON THE HERALD VERDICT. Shortly before 4 p.m. on Friday, a low buzz started among the reporters and other observers who had gathered to wait for the verdict in the Boston Herald libel trial. Supposedly the 12-member jury - supplemented earlier in the day by an alternate after one of the regular jurors was dismissed for personal reasons - was unable to come to a conclusion, and would be sent home until next Tuesday. The groans were nearly audible.

But with no one really sure what was going on, the several dozen people who had gathered in the 12th-floor courtroom hung around, waiting for some official word. It came at 4:03, when the jurors took their place in the jury box and handed their verdict to a court official. Boston Municipal Court judge Charles Johnson, who presided over the month-long trial with what might be called an excess of calm, spent several agonizing minutes reading the verdict before it was finally announced:

The Herald had been found to have libeled Superior Court judge Ernest Murphy. Herald reporter Dave Wedge was also found to have libeled Murphy. The case was dismissed against Herald reporter Jules Crittenden, who'd shared a byline with Wedge but who had not reported or written the most controversial parts of the Herald's February 13, 2002, story, which alleged that Murphy was a "wrist-slapping" judge who had "heartlessly demeaned" victims of crime. The damages: $2.09 million.

The verdict gets plenty of attention in today's papers. Start with Jack Spillane's account in the New Bedford Standard-Times. Spillane has done yeoman work in covering the trial, and he's gotten the space needed to do it right. New Bedford, you see, is in Bristol County, which is where this story began three years ago. The New York Times covers the case here; the Boston Globe here; and the Herald itself here.

Was it libel? I've got my doubts, as I wrote last week in the Phoenix. Ultimately it will be up to the appeals courts to decide. Murphy is a public official, and the Herald's reporting involved how Murphy was performing his public duties as a judge - reporting that is accorded the highest degree of First Amendment protection. Under the Supreme Court's landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision, the jury had to find that the Herald had acted with "actual malice" - a legal term that means Wedge and his editors knew that their reporting was false, or that they showed "reckless disregard" for whether it was true or false.

In practical terms, that means Wedge and his editors had to have harbored strong suspicions that their reporting was false, but that they went ahead and published it anyway. Murphy's lawyer, Howard Cooper, argued that was precisely the case. But it seems more likely that Wedge allowed himself to get caught up in a vendetta against Murphy by Bristol County district attorney Paul Walsh, whose office was the source of quotes attributed to Murphy that he had said of a 14-year-old rape victim, "Tell her to get over it," and that he had dismissed concerns about a 79-year-old robbery victim by saying, "I don't care if she's 109." Murphy had emphatically denied saying any such thing about the rape victim, and testified that his remark about the elderly robbery victim had been twisted out of context.

Last evening Herald publisher Pat Purcell issued a statement vowing to appeal the verdict:

I would like to thank the jury for their diligence on this very complicated case.

However, we believe the first amendment allows news organizations to provide uninhibited coverage of government and public figures and we will continue to cover them vigorously.

We have complete faith in our reporter David Wedge, and we are confident this decision will be reversed on appeal.

Legalisms aside, the jury sent a powerful message to the media about the dubious, inflammatory reporting in which the Herald engaged. Wedge's first story was essentially based on one anonymous first-hand source - later revealed to be then-prosecutor David Crowley - who testified that Wedge got the "gist" of it right, but mangled the "Tell her to get over it" part. (In fact, the evidence showed that Murphy had more likely said "She's got to get over it, which raises the possibility that he was actually showing solicitude toward the victim - although Walsh testified that neither he nor Crowley took it that way.)

Wedge, by his own testimony, did not try to contact either of the two defense lawyers who were present when Murphy allegedly made those remarks; both of those lawyers testified that Murphy did not utter the offending statements. Wedge's attempt to interview Murphy before that story ran consisted of approaching a court officer at New Bedford Superior Court and being rebuffed, he testified. He did confront Murphy outside a restaurant the next day for a follow-up story; Murphy refused to speak with him, which I had thought might be a mitigating factor in the Herald's favor. Obviously the jury didn't agree. Nor did it help that Wedge reported in his follow-up that the 14-year-old had "tearfully" read a statement in court, when in fact the statement had been read by a prosecutor; or that Wedge had gone on The O'Reilly Factor and made statements that even his own reporting didn't support.

In the hallway outside the courtroom, after the verdict had been delivered, Herald reporter Tom Mashberg, who chairs the Herald union's editorial unit, read a statement in support of his colleague: "Our members are disappointed by this verdict and are supremely confident it will be overturned on appeal. David Wedge is an excellent reporter who worked tirelessly to expose the sentencing practices of a powerful sitting judge."

The afternoon, though, belonged to Judge Murphy, surrounded by his lawyers and family members. A tall, stocky man who towered over the press gaggle that surrounded him, he decried the ordeal he'd gone through as a result of the Herald's reporting and numerous follow-ups - including death threats, a hate-filled message suggesting his own daughters should be raped, and public characterizations of him as "Easy Ernie" and "Evil Ernie." At one point, Murphy testified during the trial, he went out and bought a .357 Magnum for protection.

"I think what happened to me should be an example," Murphy said yesterday. "Innocent people, their lives can be altered and they can be hurt immeasurably." He added: "I'm proud of myself for standing up, I'm proud of my family for standing by me." And he said that the verdict should stand as an "object lesson" in "how powerful the press is." Cooper said there was "a message here for the media." That message: "People like David Wedge need to think before they put their fingers to the keyboard."

Murphy also said he hopes to resume his duties as a judge, and that he will hear criminal cases if he's allowed. Among other things, he said he hopes that his ordeal will focus new attention on "alternative sentencing" options, such as rehabilitation for perpetrators addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Judges, he said, must "exercise discretion."

Perhaps that was the most powerful message of all yesterday. Because the truth is that what enraged Bristol DA Walsh was Murphy's compassion. Regardless of whether Murphy, behind closed doors and off the record, said things that could be interpreted as insensitive toward victims of crime, the real issue is Murphy's belief that not all criminals are beyond redemption - that it makes no sense to destroy additional lives if there is reason to believe that wrongdoers can be transformed into productive members of society. That's not a popular message, especially with prosecutors.

The Herald's Greg Gatlin today quotes a prominent First Amendment lawyer, Robert Bertsche, on why the Herald may win on appeal:

The sad thing about this is it's clearly a story of public importance. There are questions about this judge's record and whether he had been lenient, and that is something that we and our newspapers should be talking about. That's part of being in public office.

I think Bertsche is right, and I quoted him to similar effect last week. Nevertheless, there are numerous things the Herald could and should have done to avoid legal trouble. One more day of checking would have made all the difference.

Friday, February 18, 2005


DID NOVAK TALK? A Media Log reader (I've forgotten who; Tim Francis-Wright says it wasn't him, and I've updated this item accordingly) suggested that I look up Nina Totenberg's remarks on NPR from Wednesday morning. It was an excellent suggestion: Totenberg offered the most plausible explanation yet for why New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper face jail while syndicated columnist Robert Novak - the journalist who actually revealed Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA "operative" - is apparently being left alone.

The nickel backgrounder: Plame is the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was highly critical of the Bush administration in the summer of 2003, claiming the White House had ignored his earlier report that Saddam Hussein had not sought uranium in Niger. Novak blew Plame's cover several weeks later. There is at least a possibility that the "senior administration officials" to whom Novak spoke acted deliberately to ruin Plame's career in retaliation for Wilson's criticism.

Okay, back to NPR. Toward the end of a brief interview with Morning Edition co-anchor Steve Inskeep, Totenberg had this to say:

I can only speculate here. Since Robert Novak was the prime mover in this story, we have to assume, if we're speculating, that he has, in some measure, cooperated with the prosecutors and said to them, "So-and-so gave me this information, but he had no idea she was an undercover agent. Therefore, he wasn't committing a crime. This wasn't part of any larger strategy to discredit Ambassador Wilson." If there wasn't any strategy, well, then other reporters wouldn't have been called by the same source. So conceivably, what the prosecutor is trying to do here is find out if there was a strategy to discredit Ambassador Wilson and, if there was, if the people who had the strategy knew that Valerie Plame was a covert operative didn't care and disclosed her name anyway.

You can listen for yourself here.

Totenberg's analysis makes a great deal of sense. Remember, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is trying to determine not just the identities of the "senior administration officials" who ratted out Plame to Novak, but also whether they committed a crime, something that is rather murky. (Slate's Jack Shafer explained this in October 2003.)

Totenberg's theory also matches up well with the defense that Novak himself offered before he stopped talking about this in public - a defense that I described in a Phoenix piece in October 2003:

The idea that Plame was covert, but not all that covert, has been at the heart of Novak's defense. In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press this past Sunday (following Wilson; too bad host Tim Russert couldn't get them on together), Novak stuck to the line he took in his October 1 column, contending that the revelation had been offered to him "off-handedly," and that he didn't attach all that much importance to it. And though he conceded that he was asked not to name her, he contended he wasn't asked with much conviction.

"If they'd said she was in danger, I never would have written the column," he said. Indeed, he added, if his source really didn't want Plame outed, all that person had to do was get [then-CIA director] George Tenet on the phone.

Novak's account was intriguing, raising the question of when a request not to name an undercover CIA employee is sincere, and when it is merely ass-covering. So, too, was Novak's explanation of why he originally called Plame "an agency operative," which suggests something rather serious: he said he tends to call lots of people "operatives," including "political hacks," and that it was more unthinking cliché on his part than considered description. In fact, Novak said, she is an "analyst," and he challenged anyone to look up his use of the word operative on Lexis-Nexis. I took the challenge, and found that he has used the word about 200 times over the past 10 years. So score one for the Prince of Darkness.

None of this changes my view that Novak needs to come clean. We already know that the Washington Post's Walter Pincus and Russert himself were interviewed by Fitzgerald, and that they say they did not give up any confidential sources. (For that matter, so did Cooper, until Fitzgerald came after him again.) Novak needs to do likewise.

THE PROCONSUL COMES HOME. Slate's Fred Kaplan explains why John Negroponte's appointment as national intelligence director may bode well. I'm skeptical. I haven't forgotten Negroponte's role in looking the other way at human-rights abuses in Central America in the 1980s. And neither has Eric Alterman, who writes about it in yesterday's Altercation.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

BOYCOTT NOVAK. Now that New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper have been dragged another step closer to jail, it's time for the media community to rise up as one and call out the Prince of Darkness, syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

It is Novak, as much as anyone, who knows the answer to the question that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is asking: Which "senior administration officials" revealed that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA operative? Novak was the first to reveal Plame's identity. Yet we still have no idea what, if anything, has happened to him.

Was he subpoenaed? Did he cooperate? (If so, why harass Cooper and Miller?) Has Novak not been subpoenaed? If not, why not? Might he be the subject of a separate criminal investigation? (On one of the very few occasions that he's addressed the subject, he's said that he isn't.) Or is he getting off easy because he's a Republican hatchet man?

I don't know what ought to be done. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in Branzburg v. Hayes that journalists do not have a legal right to protect confidential sources when called by a grand jury to testify. A majority of the justices seemed to think there ought to be some sort of balancing test. But the bottom line was that if a journalist's source was crucial to a criminal investigation, and prosecutors couldn't get that information anywhere else, then the journalist would have to give up her source or go to jail.

As a public gesture of solidarity with Cooper and Miller, newspapers ought to boycott Novak's column until he explains what his role has been. CNN ought to keep him off the air. I'm not saying that Novak should give up his sources. I'm saying that we deserve a credible explanation from him as to what his interactions with the special prosecutor have been, and why two of his colleagues face jail (Miller never even wrote about the Plame matter) while he goes about his glowering, unmerry way.

There are a zillion links out there today. The New York Times covers the story here; the Washington Post here. I wrote about the government's increasing aggressiveness in going after reporters' confidential sources here.

ALTERMAN V. YOUNG. Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young responds to Eric Alterman at What's missing from this is any acknowledgment that she went 95 percent of the way toward calling Alterman a "self-hating" Jew. Column-writing is rough, and it's supposed to be, but there are some expressions that are simply out of bounds - and that was one of them. Absent that, I wouldn't be all that interested in this spat - nor, I suspect, would Alterman himself.

ROLE REFUSAL. Joe Hagan reports in the New York Observer that former 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard refuses to take the blame for whatever he contributed to the Rathergate mess over those phony National Guard documents. (I say "former," but that's unclear, given that Howard has refused to resign.) Lawyers and threats of lawsuits are said to be in the air.

As Hagan observes, it's "hard to see how Mr. Howard would escape any culpability. Few dispute that Mr. Howard could have stopped the report from airing had he executed his full powers." Still, the prospect of Howard's going after higher-ups - including CBS president Leslie Moonves - is bound to keep this story churning. And ensure that CBS News remains in complete turmoil for some time to come.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

ALTERMAN AND THE GLOBE. On February 7, Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young referred to a recent commentary by Eric Alterman - a liberal pundit who is also Jewish - as "anti-Semitic" (or would be if it had been written by "a non-Jew," she wrote), or even as evidence that Alterman is a "self-hating" Jew. (Young's column is online here.)

Alterman's offense, in Young's eyes: expressing some understanding for the British Muslim Council's decision to boycott the 60th-anniversary ceremonies surrounding the liberation of Auschwitz. Alterman, Young noted, had written on his weblog, Altercation:

[T]he Palestinians have also suffered because of the Holocaust. They lost their homeland as the world - in the form of the United Nations - reacted to European crimes by awarding half of Palestine to the Zionists.... To ask Arabs to participate in a ceremony that does not recognize their own suffering but implicitly endorses the view that caused their catastrophe is morally idiotic.

Wrote Young:

The expectation that a commentator's views must be in lockstep with his or her ethnic, religious, or sexual identity is always distasteful - particularly when blacks, women, gays, or Jews are labeled "self-hating" when they refuse to toe the perceived party line.

Then again, maybe the "self-hating" label is justified on occasion. That's what I found myself thinking when I read a stunning recent commentary by author and pundit Eric Alterman ...

This is rough, nasty stuff - way out of bounds, in Media Log's view - and I've been wondering when Alterman would respond in public. The answer: today. In a long post on Altercation, he introduces readers to the dispute and reproduces correspondence he's had with the Globe, including ombudsman Christine Chinlund and Nick King, an editor of the Globe's op-ed page. He also reproduces letters from supporters. Read the whole thing - my attempt at summarizing this really doesn't do it justice.

People who know Alterman also know he's fierce in defending his views and himself. This isn't going away. Indeed, he writes:

There are many journalistic issues raised here regarding the Globe editors' irresponsibility in allowing it to be used by a know-nothing ideologue like Young, and I hope to deal with most of them in the future, here and in The Nation. [Alterman is the media critic for that magazine.] Today I am merely providing the record of my correspondence with the newspaper.

In other words, today is just the first installment in what is likely to be a long, ugly battle. Indeed, the title of Alterman's post hints at just how ugly this could get: "Slandered in the Globe."

Perhaps Young will write about this herself next Monday. Chinlund's next column would normally run next Monday as well. This could be interesting.

Monday, February 14, 2005

MY KIND OF SCANDAL. The outraged anti-Bushies can't understand why many liberal bloggers - including Media Log - are not going ballistic over the latest on Jeff Gannon. Well, let me try to explain: we like the idea of gay hookers attending White House press briefings, and think there should be more of them. (Gay hookers in the White House, that is, not press briefings.)

Two theories: a) there's nothing better than hypocrisy exposed, especially when it comes to the moral-values crowd; and b) there's no need for me to get all hot and bothered, because Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Cal Thomas, or whoever is going to erupt soon enough, at least after he's stopped looking at the pictures.

And by all means let's hear more about the Valerie Plame connection. Was the White House really whispering sweet nothings about this into Gannon's ear?

Sorry, I just can't get serious about this. So the only place I can think to send you is Wonkette. She's got the goods, the links, and - in this case - precisely the right attitude. Click here, here, and here.

IF YOU'VE SEEN ONE NUKE PLANT, YOU'VE SEEN THEM ALL. Media Log poster/critic Anthony G. points me to this rather unsettling item by Brad Friedman. Hey, maybe both facilities were built from the same set of plans!

More likely, though, that CNN has another embarrassment on its hands. But let's be clear: this is almost certainly an embarrassment of the stone-dumb-editing variety, nothing more.

A TOOL, NOT A REVOLUTION. Bloggers didn't force the resignation of Janet Cooke from the Washington Post. Stephen Glass did not depart from the New Republic under a hail of Little Green Footballs. Ditto for Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle at the Boston Globe, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and Jack Kelley at USA Today.

Yes, the departure of all these miscreants might have occurred more quickly if bloggers had been deconstructing their work in real time. In particular, the Post might have been spared from actually having to return Cooke's Pulitzer. But the notion that the MSM (and hasn't that acronym grown tiresome already?) never took care of their own until the bloggers came along is ridiculous on its face.

The theme of the day is that the bloggers took down Eason Jordan just as they took down Dan Rather, and good God almighty, what have they wrought? Please. Jordan went down because he'd been on double secret probation since his outrageous 2003 op-ed in the New York Times, in which he admitted that CNN had played down the crimes of Saddam Hussein in part to maintain the network's access. After two members of Congress, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, went public with their anger over Jordan's suggestion at Davos that US troops had deliberately targeted journalists, Jordan's support crumbled in a matter of days.

As for Rather, the bloggers certainly played a role in calling attention to the likely phoniness of CBS's National Guard documents. But if the MSM hadn't been able to push the story forward, Mary Mapes would still be employed at the network.

On Sunday, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz had a thumbsucker on What It All Means, and today a troika does the same in the New York Times. Kurtz's is the more insightful, and not because he quotes me. The fact is that media scandals have been taking place for years, and they will continue to take place. Bloggers make a difference on the margins - speeding things up, pushing the story forward, unearthing tidbits that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Blogging's become an important check on mainstream news organizations - but it's not a revolution.

JORDAN ADDENDUM. Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden, a former embed, takes a swipe at Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, who, in an e-mail to Jay Rosen, refers to Jordan's tormenters as "salivating morons" who comprised a "lynch mob."

JUST CHANGE THE NAME. If Laura Bush wants to shake things up in the East Wing, that's fine with me. Come on - who cares? But imagine what we'd be hearing if Hillary Clinton had fired a chef brought in by Barbara Bush. Now read this piece by the New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

THE STRANGE DEPARTURE OF EASON JORDAN. The CNN chief news executive has resigned because of his remarks in Davos, which have been characterized as accusing US troops of deliberately firing on journalists. Yet we still don't know exactly what he said; neither a transcript nor a tape has been released.

Howard Kurtz has a full account in today's Washington Post. I was not surprised to learn that Jordan's influence has been waning of late, and that his bosses were getting sick of the controversy. Kurtz is often criticized for his dual roles as an employee of both the Post and CNN, but in this case that seems to have provided him with more insight into what's going on at CNN than most reporters would have.

Jay Rosen has a roundup of blog commentary, mostly from the right. I have to agree with Jordan critics such as Glenn Reynolds, who say that releasing the tape could only have made things worse. I mean, what else are we to think?

On the other hand, can we please interrupt the self-congratulatory hooting from conservative bloggers for a moment in order to offer some kudos to two liberals, Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd? It was their outrage that lifted this out of the usual left-right paradigm.

I meant to link to this the other day, but Danny Schechter's got a useful perspective on this, too.

Finally: I still want to see the tape.

Friday, February 11, 2005

FEHRNSTROM RESPONDS. Governor Mitt Romney's communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, sends an e-mail to Media Log about yesterday's link to Bay Windows. Fehrnstrom writes:

1) Governor Romney hired Katherine Abbott. Her sexual orientation had nothing to do with the decision to bring her on board, and it had nothing to do with her departure.

2) John Wagner is Governor Romney's commissioner of the state welfare department, and is married to a same sex partner. Ditto for Mitchell Adams, the executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, whose members are appointed by the Governor. Both of them are doing excellent jobs.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

MORE ON THE ABBOTT FIRING. Susan Ryan-Vollmar, writing in Bay Windows, observes that Katherine Abbott is the second lesbian to be fired by Governor Mitt Romney after getting married. Ryan-Vollmar wants to know: was this about snow, or about Romney's ongoing campaign to suck up to the religious right in advance of the 2008 presidential campaign?

LIBEL, LIBEL EVERYWHERE. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think I would have to devote an entire Media Log post to an update of local libel news. But I do. So here we go:

The Herald libel case. I've got a long piece on Superior Court judge Ernest Murphy's libel suit against the Boston Herald, which you can read here. (Thanks to Phoenix staffers Deirdre Fulton and David Bernstein for sharing courtroom duty with me.)

In today's Herald, Greg Gatlin reports on the testimony of Bristol County assistant DA Gerald FitzGerald, which took place after the Phoenix's deadline. It turns out, not surprisingly, that FitzGerald was the source of the infamous "Tell her to get over it" quote about a 14-year-old rape victim, which Murphy has denied ever saying.

Herald reporter Dave Wedge's only direct source, former prosecutor David Crowley, testified on Tuesday that Murphy actually said something more like "She's got to get over it." However, Crowley said that the Herald got the "gist" of it right.

I'm sympathetic to Murphy, who was put through a very public kind of hell. But this isn't libel.

An old Globe libel case. Last week, the Boston Globe easily won a libel case brought by a Stoneham lawyer. Today, an older - and considerably more fascinating - case rears its head.

Three years ago, the Globe lost a libel suit to Dr. Lois Ayash, who argued she had been defamed by the paper's coverage of the circumstances surrounding the 1995 death of Globe columnist Betsy Lehman. Lehman and another woman were both given overdoses of anti-cancer medication; Lehman died, and the other woman was seriously injured. (She later died as well.)

The Globe lost after a default judgment was entered against the paper, the consequence of a decision by the paper and reporter Richard Knox (now with NPR) to refuse to identify a confidential source. A judgment of $2.1 million was entered against the Globe, and that judgment was upheld yesterday by the state's Supreme Judicial Court. (Herald report here; Globe report here.)

Here's part of yesterday's SJC decision that addresses the matter of Knox's confidential source (for clarity, I've removed citations without using ellipses):

This is clearly not a case where the Globe defendants were unable to comply with the orders. We do not suggest that their refusals to obey the discovery orders were in bad faith. Despite their assertions to the contrary, however, the Globe defendants had no special constitutional or statutory testimonial privilege, based on their status as a newspaper publisher or reporter, that would justify their refusal to obey the orders. We have recognized that values underlying the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and art. 16 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, may give rise to a common-law privilege that would allow a news reporter to refuse to reveal his sources. In deference to the effect that compelled discovery has on free speech, and to avoid the "needless disclosure of confidential relationships," our cases require a judge ruling on discovery requests, on a showing that "the asserted damage to the free flow of information is more than speculative or theoretical," to conduct a balancing test between "the public interest in every person's evidence and the public interest in protecting the free flow of information." As has been stated above, the judge carefully performed that balancing test and properly concluded that, in this case, the plaintiff's need for the requested information outweighed the public interest in the protection of the free flow of information to the press.

This is a classic case involving the clash of libel law and the so-called reporter's privilege to protect confidential sources. The Globe has said that it might appeal yesterday's ruling to the US Supreme Court.

Libel mishegas. In today's Globe, David Abel reports that Suffolk County district attorney has sentenced five kids who acted up at the Patriots rally to read and write essays on All Souls, Michael Patrick MacDonald's celebrated memoir of growing up on the mean streets of Southie.

Further inside the paper, though, is an Alex Beam column recounting the events behind - yes - a libel suit filed against MacDonald by Richard Marinick, a former state trooper who went bad, and who is described in All Souls as having strangled MacDonald's wounded brother after a busted heist.

DEFENDING THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA. Steve Silver has some useful thoughts on the subject here. His main point is one I've been trying to make off and on for some time: the blogger-MSM thing is a dialectic. A few blogs have proven to be an incredibly useful corrective to what the mainstream media puts out. But without the mainstream media, what would the bloggers have to write about?

We need a fair, impartial, and professional (as in "paid"; I'm not talking about any particular credentials) media as much as ever. Just because the MSM consistently falls short doesn't mean that the bloggers will or should take over.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

WHERE'S THE TAPE? Media Log has withheld fire on the latest controversy involving CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan for a simple reason: we still don't know exactly what he said. But with the Internet swirling with indignation over reports that Jordan accused US troops of deliberately firing on journalists, it's time to ask an equally simple question: where is the tape?

Here's what we know. On January 27, at the economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, Jordan said something during a panel discussion that set off a firestorm. Mark Jurkowitz, in the Boston Globe, and Howard Kurtz, in the Washington Post, brought matters up to date yesterday. It should be noted that Kurtz is also an employee of CNN. And if you want to keep going with the disclosures, I am a very occasional unpaid guest on Kurtz's CNN show, Reliable Sources.

Jordan told Kurtz:

I was trying to make a distinction between "collateral damage" and people who got killed in other ways. I have never once in my life thought anyone from the US military tried to kill a journalist. Never meant to suggest that. Obviously I wasn't as clear as I should have been on that panel.

Kurtz adds: "No transcript exists of the Jan. 27 session, which was supposed to be off the record, and a videotape of the event has not been made public."

Let's see the tape!

What's disturbing about this is that two members of Congress who were on hand when Jordan made his remarks - Representative Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd - clearly believed that Jordan had accused American soldiers of targeting reporters. Read their comments. They come across as barely mollified by Jordan's efforts to undo the damage.

Conservatives, as you can imagine, have been going berserk. And in this case, why shouldn't they? (And why shouldn't liberals - and not just Frank and Dodd.) I'm not going to try to track it all down, but here's a sample from last week, from National Review Online.

Nearly two years ago, Media Log went after Jordan for a New York Times op-ed piece in which he confessed that CNN had covered up some of the worst of Saddam Hussein's crimes for years, in part to protect CNN employees, in part to maintain access. But that time, at least, we knew exactly what he'd said.

What Jordan said in Davos has become a big enough story about an important enough institution that it's time for all of us to have a chance to judge for ourselves.

Finally, Jay Rosen has been right on top of this. This post is invaluable. Be sure to read the "After Matters" addendum. Michelle Malkin interviews Barney Frank. How odd is that?

MORE THAN YOU WANT TO KNOW. I want to link to this Slate piece before it slips off the home page. Audiophile Evan Cornog has something to tell you that you may not have realized - your iPod sucks - as well as some not-so-comforting advice: there's nothing wrong with it that $1200 worth of accessories won't fix.

You'll feel better if you read the feedback at the bottom of the article. In any case, Media Log's middle-age ears are perfectly happy with regular MP3 and AAC files and standard-issue Apple earbuds.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

SNOW JOB. Media Log was ready to give Governor Mitt Romney a pass on his decision to fire Katherine Abbott, the head of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, for failing to get the snow cleared near West Roxbury High School the other day. Maybe it wasn't Abbott's fault, maybe she was otherwise doing a good job - but when four kids get struck by a pickup truck, a high-profile sacrifice is sometimes necessary.

Then I saw this Herald story by Franci Richardson and Michele McPhee reporting that Romney had grabbed $45,000 from Abbott's underfunded agency for a Patriots hoo-hah last week. Unbelievable. And shameless.

BLAME IT ON FRIEDMAN. According to the Shorenstein Center's Richard Parker, the only big idea put forth by economist Milton Friedman that hasn't been tried yet is privatized Social Security accounts. Unfortunately, as Parker observes in this Globe essay, all of Friedman's other ideas have been whopping failures.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

DON'T PAY PER VIEW. Stephen Humphries quotes me in today's Christian Science Monitor on free newspapers and websites, and whether subscription fees are part of the past.

JUST SAY NO. When Bill Clinton proposed a massive restructuring of the health-care system more than a decade ago, William Kristol - then a top Republican strategist, now a pundit - had some simple advice: kill it, sight unseen. As social policy, Kristol's memo was irresponsible; as political hardball, it was brilliant. The Clinton health-care plan was falsely labeled a government takeover of the medical system, and the president's defeat paved the way for the 1994 Republican congressional victory and the rise of Newt Gingrich.

Do the Democrats have the backbone to do the same thing with George W. Bush's Social Security proposal? There are some encouraging signs. Senate minority leader Harry Reid says that not a single one of his members will support Bush's plan to divert Social Security funds into private accounts. But the Bush-Rove machine is an awesome sight once it gets revved up. Bush today launches a tour aimed at building support for his plan, and at pressuring Democrats in conservative states into getting on board.

Unlike the Kristol maneuver of a dozen years ago, killing private Social Security accounts would be good social policy. Bush's description last night in his State of the Union address of the woes facing Social Security might be said to fall into the category of "accurate but not true." Here's the heart of his case:

Thirteen years from now, in 2018, Social Security will be paying out more than it takes in. And every year afterward will bring a new shortfall, bigger than the year before. For example, in the year 2027, the government will somehow have to come up with an extra $200 billion to keep the system afloat - and by 2033, the annual shortfall would be more than $300 billion. By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt. If steps are not taken to avert that outcome, the only solutions would be dramatically higher taxes, massive new borrowing, or sudden and severe cuts in Social Security benefits or other government programs.

The problem with this is that it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Social Security works - and a cynical belief that the scare tactics contained therein will be sufficient to persuade millions of Americans into stampeding his way, lest they otherwise lose out on their benefits altogether.

Media Log freely confesses to having spent the better part of a career avoiding the details of Social Security. Nevertheless, I have recently made some attempt to come up to speed, and I'm utterly convinced that people who really understand Social Security have proved there is no crisis. I highly recommend this January 16 New York Times Magazine article by Roger Lowenstein. Unfortunately, it's been moved into the archives, and you'll need to pay a fee. But Lowenstein proves, pretty definitively as far as I can tell, that Social Security should be able to survive more or less intact until at least 2080 with just a few minor tweaks.

A simpler version of the Lowenstein argument is online here. Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall, and Bob Somerby have all been invaluable on this topic as well.

Social Security is a popular program, and Democrats thrived politically for decades by claiming - with some truth and a lot of hyperbole - that Republicans wanted to destroy it and toss elderly folks out into the street. Now that we have a Republican president who really does want to destroy Social Security, can the Dems keep the courage of their convictions?

A possible line of attack against the Democrats was heard last night on MSNBC, with host Chris Matthews and several of his guests observing sagely that though the Democrats oppose private accounts, they haven't proposed any "alternative." Look out: this could be effective. In fact - again, to pick up on Lowenstein's analysis - the politically savvy and socially responsible "alternative" may well be to emulate Bill Kristol circa 1993, and just keep standing up and telling Bush, "No way."

Conservatives aren't going to give the Dems a break on Social Security no matter what they do. So the Democrats might as well do the right thing.

STATE OF DISUNION. Media Log is accustomed to falling asleep during the State of the Union. This was especially true when Clinton was president, and he would regularly drone into a second hour of 10-point proposals to solve whatever.

Last night, though, I had some help in staying awake: before the speech, I took part in a panel discussion at Boston College put together by the student Democratic and Republican organizations. Along with state senator Brian Joyce (D-Milton), Beacon Hill Institute executive director David Tuerck, and WBET Radio (AM 1460) talk-show host Stephen Pina, we mixed it up for about an hour and a half on Iraq, Social Security, and other issues - including immigration, for which I was completely unprepared.

One of the more interesting moments came when Joyce asked for a show of hands on how many of the 50 to 75 students in attendance supported last year's attempt by the Massachusetts legislature to amend the state constitution in order to prohibit same-sex marriage. Even though the crowd was at least one-third Republican, very few hands went up. When he asked how many were in opposition, most of the hands went up. (Sorry if there's any confusion. Oppose the amendment: for gay marriage; support the amendment: against gay marriage.) Joyce - who also opposed the amendment - said it confirmed his belief that opposition to gay marriage is primarily generational. And he lamented Bush's tactic of dividing people for political gain.

Joyce's critique was confirmed during Bush's speech, when the president offered this aside: "Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be re-defined by activist judges. For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage."

We already knew that, of course, but it's always appalling when Bush decides he has to throw some red meat to his base. Then, too, this came at a time when his new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, was denouncing a kids' show (second item) for depicting two normal families headed by lesbian couples.

GANG LAND. Boston Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis interviews a mother who has a special reason for not liking Bush's speech.

ONE DOWN, ONE TO GO. The Boston Globe won its libel suit. The case against the Boston Herald may wrap up toward the end of next week.

Both of these cases are rather odd. I sat through all of the testimony of Herald reporter Dave Wedge, and most of that given by Globe reporter Walter Robinson. At a minimum, the plaintiffs in a libel case must show that the stories about them were substantially untrue. In the Herald's case, the plaintiff, Judge Ernest Murphy, also has to show that Wedge acted with reckless disregard for the truth, a very high constitutional standard that applies to public officials.

Yet the jury concluded in the Globe case that the paper's reporting on Stoneham lawyer Stephen Columbus was basically true - no libel there. (Globe story here; Herald story here.) And in the case of the Herald, Murphy's side has not been able to disprove the essential accuracy of Wedge's reporting (Globe story here; Herald story here.)

Then again, the trial has a few more days to go. And you can never predict what a jury is going to do.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

LEGALIZED OBSCENITY. Brought to you by Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and William Rehnquist! I'm a bit slow getting to this, but I haven't seen a lot of coverage, either.

About a year and a half ago I wrote about the case of Extreme Associates, purveyors of such fine entertainment as Ass Clowns 3. The makers of this harder-than-hardcore pornography, Robert Zicari and Janet Romano, were being prosecuted by Attorney General John Ashcroft under federal obscenity statutes. Zicari and Romano were doing business in California; the case was brought in conservative Western Pennsylvania.

Well, guess what? Extreme Associates won. On January 20, US District Court judge Gary Lancaster dismissed the case against Zicari and Romano, and possibly paved the way for the long-overdue death of anti-obscenity laws. And if Lancaster is upheld, you can send your thank-you cards to Supreme Court justices Scalia, Rehnquist, and Thomas.

You may recall that, a few years ago, the three conservatives dissented in Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned anti-sodomy laws. Scalia - who actually wrote the dissent - fumed that the majority decision could pave the way for obscenity laws to be overturned as well. It turns out that Lancaster read Scalia's dissent and agreed. Wrote Lancaster:

In a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia opined that the holding in Lawrence calls into question the constitutionality of the nation's obscenity laws, among many other laws based on the state's desire to establish a "moral code" of conduct.... It is reasonable to assume that these three members of the Court came to this conclusion only after reflection and that the opinion was not merely a result of over-reactive hyperbole by those on the losing side of the argument.

You've got to love the way that Lancaster is willing to twist the logical knife into the conservative Supremes.

Lancaster's opinion is a great victory for free speech and privacy. It's also a challenge aimed directly at the right-wing agenda being pursued by George W. Bush's Justice Department.

PAINFUL TO READ. Take a look at the side-by-side comparisons posted by Bruce Allen of a column by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette's Ken Powers and an earlier piece by Sports Illustrated's Peter King. Powers's career is obviously hanging by a thread at this point. What was he thinking? (Via Romenesko.)