Tuesday, May 31, 2005

ON THE MOVE AT THE HERALD. You can't tell the editors at One Herald Square without a scorecard. With some 35 union newsroom positions (and non-union positions as well) being eliminated by the end of June - part of a $7 million downsizing effort - the changes are coming fast and furious.

Here is the text of a memo obtained by Media Log that managing editor Kevin Convey sent out earlier today:

It gives me great pleasure to announce the following promotions:

Deputy Sports Editor Hank Hryniewicz is our new sports editor. [Hryniewicz replaces Mark Torpey, who took the buyout that management is offering people as an incentive to leave.] Hank's creativity, vision and management skills will open a new era in the history of our sports department.

Business reporter John Strahinich becomes our new Sunday editor. John made his bones as executive editor of Boston Magazine and founding editor of Boston Business Forward, and I know he'll put our Sunday paper on the map.

Financial Editor Eric Convey [the position might better be defined as deputy business editor] joins our news operation as senior executive city editor. Eric's insight, news chops and enthusiasm will energize both the City Desk and the reporting staff. [Eric Convey and Kevin Convey are not related, by the way.]

Assistant Financial Editor Greg Gatlin moves up to the position of financial editor. Greg's excellent performance as media reporter and all-around knowledge of business make this move a slam-dunk.

Copy editor Jen Miller joins the news desk as an executive city editor. Her youth, smarts and fresh ideas will add much to the desk.

Reporter Tom Mashberg becomes a city editor. His passion, experience and knowledge of the news business will be a tremendous asset to our operation.

Please congratulate them all and make them welcome in their new roles.

This list demonstrates that, cost-cutting aside, there are still a lot of good people at the Herald. I don't know what the downsized product is going to be like, but today's announcement does offer some hope that the Herald will still be worth picking up after June 30.

OFFICIAL NEWS. Here is the Phoenix's press release on the return of Mark Jurkowitz:

Mark Jurkowitz, who for many years served as media critic for the Boston Phoenix before landing at the Boston Globe, is returning to the newspaper.

Jurkowitz will fill the slot opened by Dan Kennedy's move to teach full-time at Northeastern University.

Kennedy leaves the Phoenix at the end of June. Jurkowitz starts at the paper July 5.

Jurkowitz studied journalism at Boston University, edited the TAB chain of newspapers, and worked as press secretary in the unsuccessful congressional campaign of James Roosevelt (FDR's grandson) before joining the Phoenix.

For several years Jurkowitz wore two hats at the Phoenix, serving as News Editor as well as media columnist and critic.

Jurkowitz served a very brief stint as Executive Editor of Boston magazine, before being recruited to serve as the Globe's Ombudsman. After two years in that role, he became the daily's first full-time media writer.

"The media landscape is a lot different from when I first started writing about it at the Phoenix," said Jurkowitz. "Media criticism was much lonelier then. There was no Internet. No Jim Romenesko. No Reliable Sources on CNN.

"I'm coming back because media criticism really began in the alternative press. The Phoenix offers the space and the freedom of voice and the format to dig into every crevice of our media culture," Jurkowitz concluded.

In announcing the move, Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis had this to say: "Who says you can't come home again?"

Jurkowitz will carry the title of senior writer and media critic. In addition to covering the media, he will write about a broad range of subjects that will include politics and sports - his other passions. He will also write daily for the Phoenix's online publication BostonPhoenix.com, as did Kennedy. (Kennedy's media blog has attracted a robust national audience.)

BOSTON GLOBE'S JURKOWITZ RETURNS TO THE PHOENIX. A little more than a decade ago, I replaced Mark Jurkowitz as the Phoenix's media critic after Mark left to become executive editor of Boston magazine. Today, the Phoenix announces that when I leave the paper a few weeks from now for Northeastern University, my replacement will be none other than - are you ready? - Mark Jurkowitz. It's a little like the baseball-trivia question about the guy who was traded for a player to be named later, and that player turns out to be himself.

Mark was scooped up by the Boston Globe not long after he left the Phoenix. Following a stint as the Globe's ombudsman, he became the daily's first full-time media reporter. He wrote some great stuff over the years, including a classic takedown of Jane Christo, then-general manager of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), in the late '90s. He also covered the 1998 departure of the Globe's fiction-writing columnists, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, from the inside even as I was reporting the story from the outside. I had by far the easier task.

I was fortunate enough to work with Mark for three and a half years before taking over his beat. I learned a hell of a lot from him, not just about the ins and outs of the Boston media scene, but about larger issues as well, ranging from the perils of corporate media consolidation to ethical considerations. I had huge shoes to fill after he left, and I think it's no exaggeration to say that it took me a couple of years before I started to feel like I was out from under his shadow.

I talked with Mark this morning, and he sounded thrilled to be coming back. I'm thrilled, too. Alternative weeklies such as the Phoenix are simply the best venues for doing serious media criticism. Big dailies only rarely can accommodate the space and the delicate mix of reporting and opinion-mongering that go into good media writing.

Along with the late Dave O'Brian, Mark established the Phoenix as an important voice of media criticism both locally and nationally. It will be great to welcome him home.

Monday, May 30, 2005

LYDON LIVE. Christopher Lydon's long-awaited return to the airwaves occurred earlier this evening with the debut of his new hour-long program, Open Source. In keeping with his embrace of all things Internet, I didn't listen to it on the radio. Instead, I streamed it from the WGBH website, recorded the stream with WireTap, and listened to the show on my iBook after it was over. I mean, why would I want to do it the easy way?

Lydon's guests were three blogging pioneers, David Weinberger, Doc Searls, and Dave Winer, the last of whom created the RSS (Real Simple Syndication) standard that is making the blog world easier to navigate, and that helps makes podcasting possible. Lots of smart talk, lots of blog triumphalism that sometimes bordered on the absurd (someone actually said it was "unethical" for those who run the New York Times website to link mainly to Times content), and a bit of outright silliness.

The silliest (I'm not sure who said this, but neither did I hear anyone object) was an observation that kids today do their homework while instant messaging with a bunch of their friends - and that this is supposed to be good! The ones who don't get it, we were told, are teachers, who continue to grade homework on an individual basis. Our sage continued: "The way to be smart is to have smart friends." Good grief. I'm glad my 14-year-old son wasn't listening. As it is, it's all we can do to get him to turn off iChat when he's supposed to be doing his homework.

From time to time, Lydon would interrupt the proceedings so that a member of his crew could check in and tell listeners what the online audience was saying. I've poked around the Open Source website, but it was not immediately apparent to me where these people were having their say.

All in all, a good debut. And, of course, it was great to hear Lydon back on local radio for the first time in four years.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

NAMING NAMES. The Salem News appears to be the only newspaper on the planet that is naming both the 16-year-old suspect and the 15-year-old victim of a schoolboy-fight-gone-bad that occurred in Danvers on May 19.

Most news organizations have a policy against identifying juveniles who have been charged with a crime. Exceptions are sometimes made - usually in the case of an unusually notorious, well-publicized incident. But it's hard to see why an exception would be made in this particular case. There is considerable doubt as to what actually happened. The suspect's lawyer claims that it was in fact his client who had been subjected to repeated bullying before the incident.

The Danvers Herald has not identified either the suspect or the victim, and notes that the suspect's lawyer was upset that his client's name had been bandied about in print and on television. Clearly the print reference was to the News, because neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald (sister paper to the Danvers Herald) has identified the suspect. Both Boston dailies did name the victim at the time the incident occurred. (I do not know what television stations the lawyer is referring to, but this wouldn't be the first time some of the local newscasts have played by their own rules.)

The Salem News named the suspect not only after he had been charged, but before as well. Last Wednesday, in an article I can't find online, the News reported that the suspect's family has been receiving death threats.

I can attest that the incident has been the talk of Danvers for the past week. But I'm not sure how many people would know the name of the suspect were it not for the News. In writing this item, I considered not linking to the News articles; but at this point, everyone on the North Shore already knows his name, thanks to the News.

Here's what I'd like to know: precisely what is the Salem News's policy when it comes to naming juveniles who have been charged with a crime, or who are likely to be charged with a crime - or, for that matter, who are the victims of a crime? If the standard policy is to withhold the names - as it is at 99.9 percent of newspapers - what was it about this particular incident that warranted an exception?

Bill Ketter, the editor of the Eagle-Tribune chain, which includes the Salem News, often writes columns about media ethics for the op-ed page. He ought to address the situation this week. It will be interesting to see whether he tries to justify the decision to name names in Danvers - or apologizes.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

CLASSIC MURPHY. Tim Francis-Wright has found the classic Jeremiah Murphy column I referred to the other day. It ran on September 11, 1982. Copyright law prevents me from posting the whole thing, but here's the top:

Hanging on in Somerville

Now the interview was over, and state Sen. Denis L. McKenna sat in his campaign headquarters in Somerville's Davis square the other afternoon and looked tired and bored. He then made one request: "Do me a favor, will 'ya. Don't screw me, OK?"

But Denny McKenna himself had taken care of that melancholy condition many years ago while serving 11 undistinguished terms in the Massachusetts Senate as a political hangover from the old days. His rages and arrogance were memorable, but that is about all that is memorable about McKenna.

It goes downhill (for McKenna, that is) from there - definitely one of Murphy's best. If you want to read the rest, look it up in the Globe archives via your public library. If you're a Globe subscriber, you can supposedly download it from the Globe's site for free, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how to do it.

MORE ON GLOBE, T&G CUTS. Not much more, actually. The Herald's Greg Gatlin, who broke this story last month, reports on yesterday's announcement here. (Gatlin's also got a pretty interesting report today on an experiment in open-source journalism.)

The Globe's Mark Jurkowitz also writes about the cuts. And here's how the Times covers the story.

CAROLYN CLAY ON ROBIN DOUGHERTY. "Robin devoted herself, in the main, to arts journalism. But her great art was the cultivation of her friends." Click here.

NEW IN THIS WEEK'S PHOENIX. Is America sick of Massachusetts? With John Kerry and Mitt Romney both gearing up for presidential runs, we're about to find out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

AN INTERESTING WRINKLE. "Strike Three for Pendergast?" Perhaps not. I write this not to settle anything, but to suggest that there are still questions needing answers.

Last November 15, Peter Pendergast, former general counsel for the Mass Turnpike Authority, wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe charging that much-needed reforms of the Big Dig never took place because, in 2001, then-governor Jane Swift agreed with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff not to pursue such a course of action.

Instead, Pendergast wrote, she fired authority members Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy, and installed Matt Amorello as the chairman. Among other things, Pendergast charged that Swift walked away from a demand by the authority that Bechtel/Parsons pay $250 million in "reparations" for its alleged mismanagement of the project.

Unfortunately, Pendergast's column has disappeared into the Globe's paid archives. But here is a key excerpt:

A month before Swift's firings, her office had asked about purported plans by the Turnpike Board to terminate Bechtel/Parsons for mismanagement. Just after 7 a.m. on Oct. 9, Turnpike CEO Richard Capka called me at home. Capka said he had just spoken to Steve Crosby, Swift's secretary of administration and finance, who had told him that Bechtel had contacted Swift at her home in North Adams and voiced concerns that the Turnpike Board would terminate the company at the board's meeting two days later. As general counsel, I informed Capka that I had no knowledge of such a plan.

One day later, Swift again intervened on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons and undermined the Turnpike Authority's ongoing negotiations with the company. The negotiations included issues of restructuring of Big Dig management, and a demand for reparations from Bechtel/Parsons in the amount of $250 million.

Within days, Swift, Crosby, and a third official, Jack Lemley, wrote letters to the Globe charging that Pendergast had his facts wrong. Among other things, Swift wrote:

I never had any conversation with any Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff employee on any matter, including the company's work as construction manager for the Big Dig.

I never informed Steve Crosby or any other individual that I had such a conversation.

I never intervened on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons in any negotiations with the Turnpike Authority.

I never instructed or directed in any way any member of the governor's staff or any other individual to intervene on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons in any Turnpike Authority negotiations. Indeed, my instructions to my staff were to the contrary.

Here is an excerpt from Crosby's letter:

Acting Governor Swift never called me on Oct. 9, 2001 - or any other time - to inquire about the Turnpike Board's considering terminating the contract of Bechtel/Parsons to oversee the Big Dig.

- I did not call or speak to project manager Richard Capka early on the morning of Oct. 9. And I never spoke to him to question him about the Turnpike board's terminating the company.

- Neither Governor Swift not anyone else from her office met with Bechtel/Parsons on Oct. 9 to discuss its possible termination.

- I was not asked by Swift to take any action on behalf of, at the behest of, or in the interest of Bechtel/Parsons; nor did I take any action on my own volition.

Pendergast falsely alleges that I - either on my own or at Swift's behest - intervened on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons to protect the company from "management reform" initiatives by the Turnpike Authority board.

Lemley offers a related complaint.

At the time, I looked at Pendergast's piece and the three letters and wrote an item wondering whether Pendergast's op-ed should have been more carefully vetted. "Strike Three for Pendergast?" was the headline I stuck on the item, in which I concluded: "The Pendergast column - how much of it is true, how much isn't, what sort of editing it went through - would be an excellent topic" for the Globe's ombudsman.

But the questions raised still haven't been answered. Last Friday, Ann Donlan reported in the Boston Herald on Swift's testimony in a lawsuit brought by Mihos over the firing. Donlan dwelled largely on Swift's odd practice of identifying herself as "Winthrop Murray Crane" in her e-mail correspondence. But there was also this:

Swift testified that she was unaware that the president and CEO of Bechtel Group Inc., Adrian Zaccaria, had written her an Oct. 8, 2001, letter to express concern that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was considering canceling the project manager's contract because of cost overruns.

The Turnpike, according to information in the deposition, had demanded $250 million in "reparations" from the company.

Stephen P. Crosby, Swift's secretary of administration and finance, met privately with Bechtel representatives. "I didn't become aware of that meeting until after the fact," Swift testified.

Crosby, who could not be reached for comment, "believed that Bechtel might leave, and that would jeopardize the financing and orderly management of the project," Swift said.

Interesting, no? There's also old evidence that tends to support Pendergast's version of events. On February 11, 2003, long before Pendergast's op-ed ran, Globe reporters Raphael Lewis and Sean Murphy reported:

The Turnpike Authority's lawyers set up two sessions to negotiate a possible refund with Bechtel on Oct. 9, 2001, one to take place at 9 a.m., the other at 3 p.m. The lawyers were demanding tens of millions of dollars, enough to put off toll hikes needed to pay down Big Dig debts. Top Bechtel executives flew in with a surprising offer: The company would give the state up to $50 million, according to two people who attended the first negotiating session.

Turnpike Authority lawyers said they left the morning meeting hopeful that at last Bechtel would pay for some of its mistakes.

What they did not know was that Bechtel's newly hired lobbyist, Andrew Paven, had been busy working his connections with the state's political elite. Paven arranged for Bechtel executives to go directly from the first negotiating session into a meeting with Acting Governor Jane M. Swift's chief of staff and the secretary of administration and finance [presumably Crosby, though he is not named in the article].

The afternoon bargaining session with the Turnpike lawyers never took place. After sitting down with Swift's two top aides, Bechtel rescinded its offer to refund to the state up to $50 million. The two aides declined comment.

Look, I have no idea what to make of this. What's clear, though, is that when Pendergast leveled his accusations against Swift and Crosby last November, there was more evidence to support his charges than was immediately apparent. The denials issued by Swift and Crosby may well be sincere, but the letter from Zaccaria (which I've read in its entirety), as well as the earlier Globe piece, suggest there are other facts that need to be considered as well.

At the very least, Pendergast may have gotten an unfair rap in some quarters - including from me.

CUTBACKS ANNOUNCED AT GLOBE, T&G. The New York Times Company this morning announced that 190 jobs will be eliminated at the Times and at the New England Newspaper Group, which comprises the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Romenesko has already posted two memos - one from the Times Company's chairman and president/CEO, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Janet Robinson, and one from Times executive editor Bill Keller.

What follows is a memo from Richard Gilman, publisher of the Globe and president of the New England Newspaper Group:

Dear Colleague,

Just moments ago, you received a letter from Arthur and Janet about workforce reductions at The New York Times and here at the Globe and other New England Media Group properties.

We've been talking about a portion of these reductions for months now as part of our Streamline to Grow initiative. However, during the past few weeks we have broadened the reductions in response to the current challenges we face in advertising at The Times and the Globe and the cloudy economic outlook for the remainder of the year.

These steps are simply good management, and I'm confident that none of the staffing changes will affect our ability to produce a quality product. For instance, as the New England Media Group has grown, we have created some duplication. Streamline to Grow focuses on eliminating that in financial and technology roles.

Many of the affected positions - approximately one-third - already are vacant. Notification of the other jobs to be eliminated will be made between now and, in the case of Streamline to Grow, the end of July. In some cases, because of contractual obligations, we will begin with voluntary separation programs and move to non-voluntary reductions where necessary. In a few other instances, the reductions will have to be entirely non-voluntary. However, severance packages will be equitable for all departing employees and will be based on years of service and current salary.

We realize that these steps create anxiety, even among our top performers. We can't eliminate that entirely but let me reiterate a few important points: more than one-third of the affected jobs are already vacant; the bulk of the STG reductions will occur in financial and technology roles; in non-STG impacted jobs, all those in full-time exempt positions who are affected will be notified today; and finally, virtually all of the remaining reductions will be made in part-time positions. If you are not in any of these categories, there is a very high likelihood that you will not be affected.

As we move forward to complete the overall plan, we will continue to communicate with you about what is ahead. If you have questions about the process, I urge you to talk with your supervisor or with any of our representatives in Employee Relations and Human Resources. As always, Rick, myself and other members of the senior management team are available to answer your questions.

As Arthur and Janet mention in their message, conditions in the media marketplace remain difficult. But keep in mind that we have successfully made it through similar challenges in the past. I am entirely confident that we will do so again.

Greg Gatlin reported on the bulk of these cuts in the Boston Herald on April 22, when he wrote that 40 positions in finance and technology would be eliminated. So it sounds like the reductions will have little or no effect on news coverage - but shoes remain to be dropped.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

ROBIN DOUGHERTY. Television and book critic Robin Dougherty, with whom I had the pleasure of working at the Phoenix in the early '90s, has died at 45. This Miami Herald obit requires you to go through an unusually onerous registration process before you can read it, but it's as generous as Robin was.

Here is a piece she wrote for the Boston Globe just a few months ago. In 1997, she wrote this smart essay for Salon on The Graduate, on the occasion of the film's 30th anniversary.

THE PAST RECEDES. Jeremiah Murphy, who died on Sunday, wasn't as well-known as some other Boston Globe columnists who've passed away, such as David Nyhan or Will McDonough. But I certainly remember reading his column for many years. This obit, by Tom Long, is a nice tribute.

I recall one absolutely classic Murphy column. Some sleazy old Somerville pol was on the skids, and Murphy decided to pay him a visit. Murphy torched him from start to finish, even going so far as to blast the guy for pleading with him, Don't screw me, okay?

It was a Hall of Fame entry in the kick-'em-when-they're-down school of column-writing. I tried to look it up and couldn't find it, which is too bad. The Globe should put it online.

HOWLING AT OKRENT. If you were puzzled - or outraged - by the cheap shot that the New York Times' departing public editor, Daniel Okrent, took at columnist Paul Krugman on Sunday, then you must read Mr. Somerby (second item).

Monday, May 23, 2005

THE FISH IS BACK IN THE BARREL. Here's how Mark Steyn opens his syndicated column, published yesterday in the Chicago Sun-Times: "By my reckoning, just five American newspapers mentioned the name of Imran Khan last week."

Uh, don't let Steyn count your change. Khan - the Pakistani cricket star whose Newsweek-enhanced press conference helped set off anti-American rioting, was mentioned in the following newspapers, according to searches of LexisNexis and Google News: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times, USA Today, the New York Sun, the Washington Times, the Tulsa World, the Los Angeles Times, Long Island's Newsday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Saratoga Herald-Tribune, the San Diego Union Tribune, the Bayou Buzz of Louisiana, the Boston Phoenix, and - last but not least - the Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois.

That's 16. And let's keep going. Time and, obviously, Newsweek reported on Khan. National Review Online mentioned him. So did UPI and Bloomberg. Hell, so did KSBI-TV (Channel 52) in Oklahoma. So did ABC News. Ditto for PBS. So did CNN, whose Anderson Cooper actually interviewed him.

This week, the New Yorker reports on Khan, but that would be after Steyn's deadline, so we won't count that.

I'm sure I've missed some, but I've got other matters to attend to.

Steyn:

And in the same week a mere handful of American media outlets mentioned Imran, over a hundred newspapers mentioned Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. Isikoff was the guy who filed the phony-baloney story about some interrogator at Guantanamo flushing a Quran down the toilet. But Imran was the guy who, in a ferocious speech broadcast on Pakistani TV, brought it to the attention of his fellow Muslims, many of whom promptly rioted, with the result that 17 people are dead.

Could the media have done better? Of course. But Steyn's chronic inability to get basic facts right is amazing to behold.

Update: Okay, 15 papers. The New York Sun's only mention was in Steyn's column, which it published today. But still.

CLOSING THOUGHTS. Following Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker's somewhat confusing efforts to apologize but not retract, and then to retract, damage control this week is being handled by the magazine's chairman and editor-in-chief, Richard Smith. In "A Letter to Our Readers," Smith promises to tighten up on the use of anonymous sources.

"From now on, only the editor or the managing editor, or other top editors they specifically appoint, will have the authority to sign off on the use of an anonymous source," Smith writes. The rest of his essay is a model of contrition and responsibility-taking.

Let's point out the obvious. Michael Isikoff is a good reporter, Whitaker enjoys an excellent reputation, and Newsweek is the most interesting of the three US newsmagazines. No one should lose his job. We move on.

But I'm not sure that Smith or Whitaker have quite figured out what went wrong. Isikoff got his tip that the government would include in a forthcoming report a Koran-flushing incident at Guantánamo; his source has been described as a high-ranking, trusted official in a position to know. Isikoff did his job. The problems arose after Isikoff reported the item.

Not to preclude any other possibilities, but I would identify two specific problems:

1. The editors believed they had a two-source story. They didn't. Much has been made of the fact that another Newsweek reporter, John Barry, whose byline also appeared on the item, showed it to an anonymous senior Pentagon source, who disputed part of the story, but not the Koran-flushing bit. The fact is, according to Newsweek, this source said nothing about the Koran.

Smith writes: "Had he objected to the allegations, I am confident that we would have at the very least revised the item, but we mistakenly took the official's silence for confirmation." No kidding. What's now clear is that this source may well have thought he was being asked to vet things he actually knew about; he likely had no information about the Koran incident one way or the other.

Morton Kondracke, on Fox News, called this "a one-and-a-half-source rule," but it really wasn't. It was one source, period. And though I understand - as Bob Zelnick and Fred Barnes have pointed out - that it may sometimes be necessary to rely on one well-placed, anonymous source in reporting a story, in this case the tidbit wasn't worth it unless it could be better documented.

Oddly, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter this week tries to knock down the notion that one source isn't enough, writing, "The notion that every scoop must have at least two sources is a myth that extends back to Watergate, when one source - if well-enough placed - would often suffice."

Yet consider this exchange last Monday, on MSNBC's Hardball, between host Chris Matthews and Washington Post reporter Robin Wright:

MATTHEWS: So are we going back - are we back to the two-source rule of the Woodward and Bernstein team, Robin?

WRIGHT: Most of the people at the Washington Post rely on a three-source rule.

MATTHEWS: Three-source rule?

WRIGHT: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Well, Newsweek is going to have to catch up to the Post.

Corporate ironies abound. Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post Company. Isikoff moved over from the Post to Newsweek during the 1990s following a dispute over his zealousness in covering the Paula Jones story. Both the Post and Newsweek are content partners with MSNBC.

2. It's especially dangerous to use anonymous sources to make a prediction. Keep in mind that the key part of Isikoff's item was not that a Koran had been flushed down the toilet, but that an investigative report by the US government would make that finding. In other words, Isikoff was using an anonymous source to predict something that hadn't actually happened yet.

What can you say, other than "wow"? Jack Shafer got at this particularly well, writing:

Many years ago at a newspaper job far, far away, my attorney David Andich cautioned me and my writers against publishing what anonymous government officials said would be in their reports. He also told us to be especially wary of the prosecutor who informed us - confidentially, of course - that he was going to indict the deputy mayor next Tuesday. If you commit those stories to print and the report or indictment doesn't contain the information your source predicted, you will find yourself in a world of legal hurt, he said.

What Isikoff needed from his source was not a prediction - instead, he should have insisted on a draft of the report. No report, no item - no White House attack on Newsweek, blaming the magazine for riots that have caused at least 17 deaths.

Jay Rosen has some useful wrap-up thoughts, including his account of (not) trying to keep up with Christopher Hitchens in the Dewar's department. Smart man!

Friday, May 20, 2005

"DID HE WANT ME TO PRODUCE A DEAD BODY?" University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen offers some thoughts on his bizarre encounter with Brent Bozell on Scarborough Country this past Monday.

THE DECLINE OF RIGHT-WING RHETORIC. Dean Esmay has put together a list called - I'm not making this up - "How to Tell If You're an Unpatriotic Butt-Head." As far as I can tell, Esmay is not an obnoxious eighth-grader, but you never know.

Here is #13:

Your name is Dan Kennedy, and you work for the Boston Phoenix, and you try wrap [sic] your nasty, anti-military, kneejerk reactionary views in the cloak of "criticisms of the administration's policies."

Thank you very much, Dean, you're a beautiful audience. And here's your reading assignment for today: this New York Times report, based on internal Army documents, about how American troops tortured to death two Afghan prisoners at a detention center in Bagram. It's a long story, worth reading in full, but here's a bitter taste:

Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

Should the media have reported this, Dean? Perhaps this is a violation of #2 on your list:

You believe that news stories which show gloom and doom and pessimism and failure for our troops at war constitutes [sic] nothing but good reporting - but that stories of heroism, major accomplishment, building friendships with people in foreign lands, and victory by our forces is "touting the Administration line."

Good grief. What are they teaching in civics class these days?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A GIFT TO THE RIGHT. The Phoenix has already posted my column on the Newsweek fiasco, which will appear in tomorrow's print edition. My fear is that conservatives will use Newsweek's sloppy reporting as an excuse to cover up what's really taking place in America's secret overseas prisons.

I open with an anecdote about a bizarre televised exchange between right-wing activist Brent Bozell and a University of Texas professor. For a fuller explication of that exchange, check out this item from Jonathan Miller.

CLASS WARFARE. An amazing front-page juxtaposition in today's Boston Globe.

In the lead position is this Alice Dembner piece reporting that the Romney administration is getting ready to go after poor people who can't afford to pay their medical bills.

Below the fold, Kimberly Blanton reports on the yet-to-be-built Mandarin Oriental condos in the Back Bay, which go for as much as $12 million a pop and are already just about sold out. Blanton writes:

Maids will turn off the vacuum cleaner when penthouse owners walks by. Residents will be able to order raw steaks, prepped for grilling, and have them delivered to their private, rooftop terraces. Upon arriving home from out-of-town trips, they will be greeted with fresh orchids, crisp sheets, and Perrier on the nightstand.

No doubt a few of those maids will be worried about the dunning letters they're getting telling them to cough up for their kid's last visit to the emergency room.

I'm sorry, but taxes on the rich obviously aren't high enough. Not even close.

SERVICE WITH A SNEER. The Boston Herald's Brett Arends reports today that about 40,000 Bank of America customers will be without electronic-banking services - including ATM access for five weeks this summer. Good grief.

One more reason why I stick with Bailey Building & Loan.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

NOT-SO-FREE PRESS. Duty calls, but I want to say a quick word about the New York Times Company's decision to start charging for some online content from the Times, most notably its op-ed-page columnists - a move so startling that it managed to penetrate the blogworld yesterday even in the face of the Newsweek controversy.

First, this is an admission that a business model has failed, at least for now. The whole idea of Web publishing was supposed to be that, by chucking the need for a printing press and a distribution system, the costs of manufacturing would be so much lower that there would be no need to charge readers. The model would be over-the-air network television, paid for entirely by advertisers. Unfortunately, Web advertising, though healthier than it was immediately after the dot-com bust, has never lived up to expectations. Then, too, it's interesting that the Web-as-broadcasting model is striking out even as television-as-broadcasting is declining in the face of competition from cable, satellite, and various pay services.

Second, this is a real blow to the idea of a blog-driven national conversation - a point made by many bloggers already, and put especially well here by Andrew Sullivan. It's hard to link to Times columnists if you can't be sure your readers don't have access to them. The Wall Street Journal realized this and started up OpinionJournal.com, a free site for its opinion-mongers. But the Times is moving in precisely the opposite direction, charging only for its opinion writers. The Journal also has a workaround that allows bloggers who are subscribers to provide links that will work even for non-subscribers. I hope the Times does the same. A cautionary example: the New Republic has virtually disappeared from this conversation since it went to a subscription based model, despite offering oodles of sharp political commentary.

Monday, May 16, 2005

OKAY, ONE MORE. Conservative blogger LaShawn Barber gives the game away right here:

Let me clear up one thing. Whether Americans flushed the Koran down the toilet is irrelevant. Newsweek should not have reported it, even if true. It's common sense, people. Those journalists knew how Muslims would react! Why would you hurt your own country and risk more deaths just to report this "fact?" To what end???

Just in case anyone was unclear on the agenda. Whatever it is, it's not about the truth.

Barber also links to this report on Radio Equalizer that Boston's WRKO Radio (AM 680) has decided to cancel the Newsweek on the Air program in response to the Guantánamo fallout. (If you cancel a program that no one has ever actually heard ... well, never mind.)

WRKO program director Mike Elder tells the Equalizer that he was preparing to dump the show anyway, but the current situation "led me to move forward more quickly than originally planned."

This is a station that gives knuckle-dragging hatemonger Michael Savage 15 hours of airtime every week. Can we please get real about what's going on here?

ANDREW SULLIVAN ON NEWSWEEK. I've got to get chomping on something else this afternoon, so I'll try to make this my last post on the subject for now. But here's Andrew Sullivan on the Newsweek matter:

We have yet to see what's at the root, if anything, of the Newsweek story. But I think it's telling that some bloggers have devoted much, much more energy to covering the Newsweek error than they ever have to covering any sliver of the widespread evidence of detainee abuse that made the Newsweek piece credible in the first place. A simple question: after U.S. interrogators have tortured over two dozen detainees to death, after they have wrapped one in an Israeli flag, after they have smeared naked detainees with fake menstrual blood, after they have told one detainee to "Fuck Allah," after they have ordered detainees to pray to Allah in order to kick them from behind in the head, is it completely beyond credibility that they would also have desecrated the Koran?

Sullivan's answer: no, of course not. Read it all.

NEWSWEEK WATCH. A couple of valuable posts in trying to figure out what happened.

1. Juan Cole gives Newsweek a pass, writing:

Isikoff's source ... stands by his report of the incident, but is merely tracing it to other paperwork. What difference does that make? Although Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita angrily denounced the source as no longer credible, in the real world you can't just get rid of a witness because the person made a minor mistake with regard to a text citation. It is like saying that we can't be sure someone has really read the Gospels because he said he read about Caiaphas in the Gospel of Mark rather than in the Gospel of John.

Newsweek has, in other words, confirmed that the source did read a US government account of the desecration of the Koran. [Cole's emphasis]

Cole seems to give Newsweek more credit than the magazine gives itself, which sets off some warning signals for me. Still, this is well worth reading. It's a long post with lots of background.

2. At the Daily Kos, Susan Hu digs up some nuggets, the most relevant of which are earlier reports of Koran desecration at Guantánamo.

Meanwhile, here is where the right is going with this: Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs has a headline that reads "Hizb ut-Tahrir Teams Up With Newsweek," a reference to a radical Islamist group believed to be behind some of last week's riots. And note that Johnson refers to Hizb ut-Tahrir as a "terror gang," even though the very article from which he quotes describes the group as one that "focuses on mass agitation rather than acts of terrorism."

Much as we need to know the truth about Newsweek's reporting, we also need to be on guard against letting the right use this to shut up critics of the Bush administration.

NEWSWEEK AT MID-PLUNGE. Remember the old joke about the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building? Halfway down, he's asked how he's doing. "So far, so good," he replies.

That's where Newsweek is this morning. Although editor Mark Whitaker has apologized for sourcing problems in the magazine's item of May 9 alleging that American guards flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet at Guantánamo Bay, he has neither retracted the item nor said that it is false. Whitaker and the reporters who produced the item, Michael Isikoff and John Barry, are hoping for a miracle. But the sidewalk is getting closer every nanosecond.

Here is Howard Kurtz on this fiasco. The New York Times' Katharine Seelye reports on the story as well. White House press secretary Scott McClellan, naturally, is claiming vindication for the Bush administration.

Is it possible to offer a bit of context on the fly? We don't know how this is going to turn out yet, although I suspect we're going to know a lot more by the end of the day. There is obviously no excuse for whatever sloppy reporting Newsweek may have committed, and the fact that 16 people have died in rioting because of the story obviously looms large.

But the right-leaning commentary that Glenn Reynolds is linking to strikes me as completely over the top. For instance, here's an excerpt from blog written by Dean Esmay:

Furthermore, if we ever had any doubts that the press is not on our side in the war, that it is anxious to publish stories of failure and doom and rarely cares to look at our successes (many of them utterly historic), well, Michael Isikoff John Barry and the Newsweek editorial team have finally laid them to rest. You guys are enemy propagandists. It's just who you are. It's nice that you've at least stopped pretending.

This is also still further proof that the notion that "professional" journalists have greater fact-checking or "checks and balances" than responsible bloggers is nonsense.

Screw you, Newsweek. Screw you.

Given how little we actually know at this point, that's quite a leap.

Moreover, given the level of abuse that has been credibly reported at Guantánamo - including that witnessed by government and military officials themselves, as revealed in documents obtained by the ACLU - the notion that the Koran was being desecrated wasn't exactly startling. Indeed, it seems at least plausible that Newsweek will be vindicated somehow - or that the Bush administration is taking advantage of slipshod journalism in order to discredit a story that may very well be true.

I'm not trying to make any excuses for anyone. I'm simply pointing out that we still don't know much.

But the sidewalk looms.

PUBLIC RADIO, TOO. Stephen Labaton has a disturbing story in today's New York Times on efforts by Kenneth Tomlinson, head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to go after National Public Radio.

As Labaton points out, NPR could easily survive without government money - but its member stations are dependent on taxpayer largesse, some more than others.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

NOT FOOLED IN TEXAS. You might think Governor Mitt Romney's proposal to bring back the death penalty would go over big in Texas. Well, you would be wrong - at least in the eyes of Cragg Hines, a Washington-based columnist (and sixth-generation Texan) for the Houston Chronicle.

Hines writes:

No matter that Massachusetts has one of the lowest murder rates in the nation (about one-third the rate of execution-happy Texas). Or that there has not been an execution in Massachusetts since 1947 (a two-electrocution day following a murder in a botched robbery).

Romney, after years of death-penalty chatter, hopped firmly aboard the Executioner's Express. He threw in the old, unfounded deterrent chestnut. (Romney's ever-faithful lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, in a bizarre stab at the bandwagon technique, argued that Massachusetts should not remain in the minority of states that does not allow the death penalty.)

Romney tried to dress up his proposal with some scientific claptrap, including a nod to DNA testing. Romney called his proposal the "gold standard" for capital punishment laws and suggested it was all but foolproof.

The only way in which his move is the "gold standard" is in political crassness. And, yes, it's a foolproof way to suck up to hard-right Republicans across the country.

If Romney intends to pander his way to the presidency, it looks like he's got some work to do.

A TALE OF GROTESQUE HYPOCRISY. According to a lengthy report on the Nation's website, Dr. David Hager, who as an adviser to the Bush administration helped deep-six FDA support for the morning-after pill, has been accused by his ex-wife of anally raping her over many years, often initiating his approaches while she was in a narcoleptic stupor.

The article, by Ayelish McGarvey, is a disturbing look at the alleged hypocrisy of an evangelical Christian. Hager, an OBGYN, has written six books with titles like As Jesus Cared for Women, which McGarvey describes as "self-help tomes that interweave syrupy Christian spirituality with paternalistic advice on women's health and relationships."

The sexual-assault charges leveled by Hager's ex-wife, Linda Carruth Davis, are pretty horrifying. And they raise an interesting media-ethics issue: what does a mainstream news organization do when explosive accusations like this are reported by another media outlet?

The Washington Post's solution today is to report the policy news that's contained in McGarvey's article, but not the sodomy. Both the Post's Marc Kaufman and the Nation make much of a videotape of a talk given by Hager at Asbury College, in Kentucky, last October. During that talk, Hager boasted of his role, as a member of an FDA advisory board, in stopping a proposal to make the Plan B morning-after birth-control pill easier to obtain.

During the talk, Hager said, "I argued from a scientific perspective, and God took that information, and he used it through this minority report to influence the decision. Once again, what Satan meant for evil, God turned into good." Faith-based science, indeed.

Now, the Post certainly knew about the sexual-abuse allegations, because Kaufman's article includes this: "The videotape of Hager's sermon was first obtained by the magazine the Nation, which published a story about the doctor today [Wednesday]." But that's as far as the Post is willing to go.

The Post is following good ethical standards. It is clear from the context that Kaufman himself was able to watch the videotape. He also obtained comment from Hager and others. The sex stuff is another matter - he would have essentially had to re-report McGarvey's story, and there's no way he could have done that in a matter of hours. So good on the Post for not simply reporting the Nation's allegations without double-checking them. (And if there is a critic's exemption, let me invoke it right here.)

But now the mainstream media have a decision to make. Will they follow up the Nation's reporting by pursuing this tale of grotesque hypocrisy - hypocrisy that, if fully pursued, could place Hager in some legal jeopardy? Or are they going to take a pass on this?

The analogy to Bill Clinton's sex life doesn't quite work. On the one hand, he was the president, which made him a far bigger and more legitimate target than Hager. On the other hand, as McGarvey notes, Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was legal and consensual; what Linda Davis alleges is anything but.

It seems to me that when credible allegations are made that a Bush adviser who helped kill an important health initiative for women may have a history of sexual abuse against his ex-wife, that's a story that ought to be fleshed out in some detail.

Addendum: in 2002, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote a piece for National Review Online claiming that the left was piling on poor Dr. Hager because of his religious views. It will be interesting to see whether Lopez writes a follow-up.

NEW IN THIS WEEK'S PHOENIX. The religious right (and a few liberals) already have broadcasters on the run with their crusade against indecency. Coming up: cable, satellite, and - just possibly - the Internet. With a legal analysis by Harvey Silverglate.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

WALTER JAY SKINNER. In 1986, when I was a reporter for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, I covered all but one week of a 78-day trial in US District Court over the question of whether two corporations were responsible for contaminating a Woburn neighborhood's drinking water, causing numerous cases of childhood leukemia, some fatal. Even then, what had happened in Woburn was a matter of some national renown; but the story became far better known because of Jonathan Harr's excellent book, A Civil Action, and, later, a mediocre movie by the same name.

Presiding over the trial was Judge Walter Jay Skinner, who died on Sunday. As this obituary in the Boston Globe by Tom Long points out, Skinner was caricatured in the movie as a heartless bastard in the thrall of corporate interests. Skinner's reported reaction to that unfair characterization: "It goes with the territory."

In fact, Skinner did occasionally - perhaps more than occasionally - light into the family's lawyers, principally Jan Schlichtmann, though another member of the team, Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, was not immune from Skinner's lash, either. The problem was that though the families had both a heartbreaking story and compelling evidence, Schlichtmann was seriously outlawyered by W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, the two defendants accused of being responsible for the contamination.

Skinner was a reserved and dignified man of great integrity - a Yankee Republican who made his name by going up against the Democratic-fueled corruption of his era, and who went on to enjoy a distinguished judicial career. He'll be missed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

DON'T QUOTE THEM. An internal report (PDF file) released this week by a New York Times committee chaired, inevitably, by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal is sensible and unstartling, so much so that it has not gotten a huge amount of attention. The most extensive piece I've seen appeared in the Times itself yesterday.

In today's Boston Globe, Mark Jurkowitz has an interview with executive editor Bill Keller about the most provocative part of the report - a suggestion that the Times speak out more aggressively when its editors believe the paper has been unfairly attacked. And the Boston Herald runs an editorial today arguing that the Times is taking too self-righteous a stance with regard to "background briefings," whereby government officials brief reporters on the condition that they not be identified.

Anonymous sources are one of those facts of journalistic life that everyone seems to think are somehow bad, but that no one is willing to give up. Slate's Jack Shafer has been a particularly harsh critic of what he calls "anonymice." Personally, I've never quite seen what the problem is.

Shafer, as a media reporter, must know more than most that it's all but impossible to report candidly on a news organization - especially one that's in trouble - if you refuse to rely on unnamed sources. Indeed, I've seen sources I've quoted anonymously turn around and give on-the-record quotes to other reporters that were 180 degrees different from what they told me. And I guarantee you that I was the recipient of the more candid assessment.

Still, think tanks produce stacks of surveys showing that the public doesn't trust anonymous sources, and for that reason alone it makes sense to try harder to put quotes on the record whenever possible. I took a shot at it just this past weekend, running a quote by a congressional staffer I had interviewed on background and asking him if I could identify him. No dice. But I tried.

It's too bad that Jay Rosen is away, because I would like to see what he has to say about the Siegal report's recommendation that the Times interact with readers through a blog. Not a revolutionary idea - but a good one.

RELEASE THE GARGOYLES. You will not find a more repellent depiction of human dysfunction than Times reporter Kate Zernike's piece today on the twisted romance of Charles Graner and Lynndie England.

Monday, May 09, 2005

HONORING ELIZABETH NEUFFER. The International Women's Media Foundation tomorrow will present a program on global human rights in honor of Elizabeth Neuffer, a Boston Globe reporter and author who was killed while covering the war in Iraq two years ago.

The first annual Elizabeth Neuffer Forum on Human Rights and Journalism will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the John F. Kennedy Library, in Dorchester. The event is open to the public, but space is limited and reservations are required. For more information, click here.

BLOG IS A PLURAL. (With apologies to Rory O'Connor.) There are problems, shall we say, with any essay on blogging that suggests Josh Marshall, Matt Drudge, and Ana Marie Cox are doing roughly the same thing. Okay, they all use computers, so I suppose that's a start.

But Adam Cohen's rumination on blogworld in Sunday's New York Times, though earnest and well-intentioned, never achieves liftoff - and it's precisely because he seems to think blogging is some sort of new and revolutionary development. It's not. Rather, blogging software is simply a tool that makes it easy for anyone to write and publish on the Internet. (And yes, I know the Drudge Report isn't really a blog, although Drudge has a blogger's sensibility.)

The biggest problem with Cohen's piece is that he laments the lack of standards among bloggers as though these folks comprise some sort of unitary whole. But think about the three examples he offers that I've cited:

Marshall is a professional journalist who writes for mainstream publications such as the Atlantic Monthly. The stock-in-trade of his Talking Points Memo blog is his journalistic reliability, combined with a moderately liberal point of view.

Drudge is an amateur-turned-professional (in the sense that he gets paid) gossip columnist who jokes that he's right about 80 percent of the time. Well, that's probably as good a track record as most gossips, and it's certainly been enough to get his readers to keep coming back.

Cox's Wonkette blog combines semi-accurate Washington gossip with a wicked sense of humor and an obsession with anal sex. Cohen's notion of "standards" is ridiculous in such a context - either you find Cox entertaining or you don't. (Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.)

Cohen shows how far off he is with his closing:

Bloggers may need to institutionalize ethics policies to avoid charges of hypocrisy. But the real reason for an ethical upgrade is that it is the right way to do journalism, online or offline. As blogs grow in readers and influence, bloggers should realize that if they want to reform the American media, that is going to have to include reforming themselves.

But bloggers who practice journalism already have ethics they can follow: those of journalism. Those engaged in partisan politics have a different set of standards, as do those who write about their cats or whatever. Drudge isn't hurting Marshall's credibility just because they both happen to write online any more than the Weekly World News' headlines about Bat Boy and alien invasions harm the reputation of all newspapers. And needless to say, the legitimate press has done more to damage its own standing in recent years than any outside force could manage.

Technorati.com is tracking nearly 9.8 million blogs, which is far more than the New York Times' total circulation. Granted, that's ridiculous. But still, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of regularly updated blogs out there, most written by amateurs who might have some interesting things to say about media and politics, but who can hardly be expected to conduct her- or himself like a reporter for the Times. Just as journalism provides value that bloggers can't, so, too, many bloggers bring something to the table that professional journalists can't: passion, a talent for personal observation, and in many cases deep expertise in one or two subjects.

Recently, Los Angeles Times media columnist David Shaw took a beating for what could properly be described as a rant against bloggers. The piece has disappeared into the paper's paid archives, but Jack Shafer's summary seems fair and accurate; that is, Shafer gives Shaw what he deserves.

Cohen's piece isn't as ill-considered as Shaw's, but it doesn't add much to the conversation, either. Blogs are like everything else: most of them are worthless, some are pretty good, and a tiny few are wonderful beyond description. That has nothing to do with the "blogosphere" (a word I detest, mainly because it lumps everyone in together). It's just life.

Friday, May 06, 2005

SO NOTED. ABC's "The Note" has taken, well, note of an odd paragraph that appears in today's Boston Globe. It's in the lead story, by Frank Phillips and Shelley Murphy, who report that former House Speaker Tom Finneran may be on the verge of being indicted by US Attorney Michael Sullivan on charges that he perjured himself in a civil trial related to a racially insensitive House redistricting plan.

Near the end of the Globe article comes this:

The case is a high-stakes one for Sullivan, a Republican politician who once served alongside Finneran in the Legislature. The state Republican leadership is eager for Sullivan to run for statewide office.

It would be perilous for Sullivan, having launched the probe, to end it without indictment, and risk being viewed as soft on the once politically powerful former speaker. However, bringing indictment will provoke anger in the political arena, and possible retaliation from other politicians. Still, indicting Finneran, and failing to get a conviction, could create a perception that Sullivan overreached, and taint his reputation.

Here is what "The Note" has to say about that second paragraph:

Is there any other newspaper in America that would run an implication-laden paragraph like this one from today's Boston Globe front-pager about the reported plans of federal prosecutor Sullivan to indict former Massachusetts Speaker Finneran for perjury?

As for the questions raised by Phillips and Murphy, here are the answers, according to "The Note": "(1) We don't know; (2) we really don't know, and we don't know; and (3) NO!!!!!"

WOLFF V. SHAFER V. WOLFF. Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff and Slate media critic Jack Shafer are going at it hot and heavy over a just-published Wolff piece that is apparently unkind toward both Slate and Shafer.

Wolff's column is not online, so the conversation is rather one-sided at this point. But Shafer takes Wolff's head off here, and Wolff responds here - going so far as to challenge Shafer to prove one of his allegations or resign. (Media Log's money is on Shafer.) Wolff tries to drag Rory O'Connor into it, too. So far, O'Connor is keeping quiet - but stay tuned.

Last August, the New Republic's Michelle Cottle came up with a pretty brutal take on Wolff that is, unfortunately, available only to subscribers. But here's a paragraph that certainly explains why Wolff disdains the "school monitor type" of media criticism:

Much to the annoyance of Wolff's critics, the scenes in his columns aren't recreated so much as created - springing from Wolff's imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events. Even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn't his bag. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches at Michael's. "He's around town enough to have those insights, to spot people, to come across [pieces of information]," says a friend. He also has a talent for making the most of even the briefest encounters. "His great gift is the appearance of intimate access," says an editor who has worked with Wolff. "He is adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all." More than one chapter of Wolff's 2003 book, Autumn of the Moguls, spotlights anecdotes about random mogul sightings in his neighborhood. In contrast to The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, whose sympathetic portrayals of media moguls have allowed him to enter their inner sanctums, Wolff does not confer with the titans he covers. He channels them.

I've met Wolff twice - once at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, in Los Angeles, where then-Phoenix reporter Seth Gitell (now Tom Menino's chief spokesman) and I ran into him in a Starbucks at breakfast time, and once on the set of WGBH-TV's Greater Boston. Both times he was polite, even charming. I've never met Shafer, but we've exchanged e-mails, I've interviewed him by phone, and, I note strictly by way of disclosure, he's said some nice things about me. So yes, it's an incestuous little world in which we live.

In any event, I suspect this is a long way from being over.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

DEATH BY PARAPHRASE. It's the cheapest trick in the opinion-monger's playbook: if a person says something with which you disagree in a manner that is just a bit too nuanced for a full frontal assault, paraphrase him - then attack the paraphrase.

New York Times columnist David Brooks takes that low road this morning. In a rambling discourse about the tortured religiosity of Abraham Lincoln, Brooks suddenly interjects:

We reject the bland relativism of the militant secularists. We reject the smug ignorance of, say, a Robert Kuttner, who recently argued that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism. But neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth. We're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness.

What did Kuttner say? You will note that Brooks's formulation - "a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism" - is his, not Kuttner's. Though that doesn't stop Brooks from accusing Kuttner of "smug ignorance" for allegedly holding such a view.

Well, here is the Kuttner Boston Globe column to which Brooks refers. Kuttner does have some harsh things to say about the religious absolutism that is driving much of our public discourse today. But you be the judge as to whether Kuttner demonstrates "smug ignorance."

Here is what may be Kuttner's toughest pronouncement:

Today's religious extremists are not only trying to use the state, with all its power, as religious proselytizer. They oppose science when it happens to conflict with their version of revealed truth. They twist history to claim that the Republic's freethinking Founders, like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, were really theocrats like themselves. They long for the predemocratic world of absolutes circa 1500.

Of course, he's right, but I digress. Consider what Kuttner has to say about the new pope: "Despite going through the motions of ecumenical outreach, Benedict XVI in his prior life as Cardinal Ratzinger made it all too clear that people who did not embrace the one true church and its dogmas were going straight to hell. Happily, most American Catholics disagree." I don't know about you, but to me that sounds an awful lot like Brooks's observation that "neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth." Yes, Kuttner is nastier; but they're both saying the same thing, more or less.

Kuttner also writes:

Mercifully, religious extremists do not represent anything like a majority. We still have a proudly independent judiciary - in the Schiavo case, Governor Jeb Bush could not find a single Florida judge willing to overturn the testimony of countless doctors. And mainstream denominations like the Presbyterians have begun speaking out vigorously on behalf of religious tolerance and pluralism.

In other words, Kuttner is not criticizing all believers - just the intolerant few. Again, the similarity to Brooks is obvious.

No, Brooks and Kuttner are not in complete agreement. Brooks clearly has more sympathy for the religious right than Kuttner. Needless to say, both are sophisticated men of the world who disagree with the righteous. It's just that Brooks thinks they're cute, and Kuttner thinks they're dangerous.

And Brooks is incredibly disingenuous, using the most widely read opinion page in the media in order to attack the less-well-known Kuttner with words that aren't even Kuttner's. Ugly stuff.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

THE "M" WORD. The Chicago Sun-Times has posted an extraordinary exchange of e-mails between film critic Roger Ebert and actor Daniel Woodburn. Woodburn, who is a dwarf, wrote to Ebert to object to the critic's use of the term midget, which is about as popular within the dwarf community as the N-word is among African-Americans.

What's fascinating about this is not just watching Ebert as he (metaphorically) listens and learns, but also seeing how technology can be used to expand everyone's understanding. Fifteen years ago, Woodburn and Ebert might have exchanged letters privately, and that would have been that. By publishing the e-mails on its website, the Sun-Times has offered an example of how the Internet can make the media transparent in a way that just wasn't possible before.

Ebert also quotes from an essay by Len Sawisch that attributes the coining of the M-word to P.T. Barnum in the mid-1800s. Sawisch was a valuable source for my book on dwarfism, Little People. But as best as I was able to tell in conducting my research, he's wrong about Barnum. In fact Barnum, in his autobiography, referred to his most famous employee, Charles "Tom Thumb" Stratton, as a dwarf, not a midget, even though the M-word describes Stratton perfectly: a short-statured person with proportionate limbs who was put on public display.

As best as I could tell, the first person to use midget to describe an unusually short person may have been Barnum's Connecticut neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Barnum started using the word toward the end of his career, but by then Stratton had retired. Stratton died in 1883, eight years before Barnum.

LYDON ONLINE. Christopher Lydon's new radio program, Open Source, won't debut until May 30. But he and his chief collaborator, Mary McGrath, and others involved in the effort are already blogging like crazy here. I haven't had time to read all of it, but there are some MP3s of an interview Lydon did with Camille Paglia, as well as some MP3s explaining what Open Source will be all about.

Lydon and McGrath are promising something revolutionary in terms of tying together radio and the Internet. I'm skeptical but intrigued. Frankly, if it just turns out to be a good radio show with a website (and a podcast!), that's enough.