Meta Media: News About the News

The State of the News with Adam Reilly
December 21, 2009, 1:49 am
Filed under: 1

Adam Reilly doesn’t hesitate. The biggest story of 2009: the near death of the Boston Globe.  “Nothing was that dramatic,” he says, leaning over a table in a conference room at the Boston Phoenix. “Dramatic and ominous.”

Reilly should know – he’s covered the media for the Phoenix for the last three years, after starting six years ago on the politics beat. The Globe, with its financial turmoil and vicious leadership infighting, has been a recurrent topic in his reporting. “We’d be kind of screwed if the Globe failed,” he says. “They drive the news agenda in the city. TV news responds to them, we respond to them, WBUR responds to them.” The Globe is Boston’s largest and most influential newspaper, and when The New York Times threatened to close it without $20 million dollars worth of cuts, the Globe became a symbol of the fragility of a once dominant industry. 

These days, the job of a media reporter can be depressing. Reilly watches journalism closely – he’s chronicling the slow death of the current broadsheet format. Newspapers around the country have stilled their printing presses or moved online in the last few years, as the Internet has sucked up print content and ad revenue – and while powerhouses like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and yes, the Globe, still stand; we as a nation are already feeling the reverberations of the loss of smaller outlets.

“In the run-up to the Iraq war, there’s this idea that the press as a whole was overly credulous,” says Reilly. “And I think that’s true. And the paper that acquitted itself best was Knight Ridder.” Knight Ridder (purchased by the McClatchy Company in 2006) was a newspaper publisher with more than 30 regional daily papers around the country. Its DC bureau – unlike those of other papers – aggressively questioned the government’s insistence that Iraq had obtained weapons of mass destruction, running articles with bulleted refutations of the administration’s assertions that Saddam Hussein and al-Queda were tied together and actively assembling nuclear arms. Knight Ridder, however, did not have enough clout to get the attention it should have. The national, big-name press, meanwhile, was drawing on a pool of administration-friendly sources, and their coverage of the WMD issue was skewed towards belief. Most of the press bought the big lie, believing in the existence of the WMDs and in the official Iraq-al-Queda connection.

“I think that some people believe that, ‘It’s OK if the Sacramento Bee doesn’t have someone in Washington DC, or the Toledo Blade – because the New York Times will still be there,’” says Reilly. “That the big national outlets can cover the big national news… But I think that this example shows that you can’t just assume that the big guys are going to do everything they should.”  If Knight Ridder beat the New York Times on something as important as rationale for going to war, then it points to the necessity of many pairs of eyes watching the government and the nation. “For us as a democracy,” Reilly says, “the more outlets, the better it is for citizens. Every time we lose outlets, I think it’s worrisome.”

But the loss of print outlets doesn’t represent the loss of journalism – it just represents the shifting of its format. “If you want to take a glass half full approach, you could say it’s an exciting time – all sorts of new ways of doing things are coming into being,” says Reilly. “It’s great to do my job in the era of web rather than an all print era. When I have a web story – all of the sudden there’s a distribution network.” Aggregator sites like Romenesko scrape the web for news stories from print and virtual media. The result – while fewer physical newspapers are bought and sold, more people are reading what journalists are writing. Journalism itself is not antiquated – but the business model is.

“It seems pretty clear to me that if you’re gonna start a publication today, you wouldn’t get a printing press, you wouldn’t get the trucks,” Reilly says. “I think the hard copy newspaper is gonna – ten years from now, certainly twenty – I think it will be gone.” In the interim, print newspapers are looking for new ways to recoup some of their losses. The Phoenix switched its business model from pay to free three years ago, banking on the hope that a free paper = more readers = more ad dollars. So far, the model has worked (who knew that the porn insert in the center of the paper served a higher purpose?), though Reilly says that the staff is currently in a pay freeze.

The Boston Globe has taken the opposite tack – increasing the cost of print subscriptions to the paper. They guessed – and so far, they’ve been right – that the Globe’s subscribers were faithful enough to keep reading for a higher price. It’s a nifty trick that can’t be pulled too many times – there is a ceiling on how much people are willing to pay for a newspaper. And the price jump raises important questions about what role journalism plays in the life of a community. “It turns the newspaper into a luxury good,” says Reilly. “And you think about it sort of as an egalitarian thing – like, whatever neighborhood you live in, whatever socio-economic group you come from – a paper like the Globe or a daily kind of creates a communal conversation.”

It’s this – journalism’s ability to engage and engage with a larger community – that Reilly sees as the best reason to get into a field that a career counselor might grimace at. “If you can find a way to make it work, financially and life wise, it’s great,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s any other line of work that has the potential to expose you to the world in as deep and rich a way as journalism does.”


Endorsements – Who Needs Them?
December 11, 2009, 7:57 pm
Filed under: 1

Martha Coakley won the Democratic Primary special election for Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat on Tuesday with 47% of the vote – a hands-down victory over her closest democratic rival Michael Capuano (he got 28%). But, notes Adam Reilly, Boston newspapers gave her no love – The Globe endorsed Alan Khazei (who came in third, with 13% of the vote) and the Herald and Phoenix backed Capuano. “Interesting point to ponder,” writes Reilly of the newspapers’ apparent lack of sway, under the headline “Coakley Beats the Boston Press” – so let’s ponder.

Did she really beat the Boston press? What is the importance of newspaper endorsements, anyway?

Most newspapers traditionally endorse candidates for President – according to Editor and Publisher magazine, 96% of newspapers with circulations of 200,000 or more said they would endorse for President in 2000 (info from the American Journalism Review). A smaller, but still very significant, percentage of newspapers endorse candidates for House/Senate and other state and citywide elections. (USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are the only major papers that have a strict no-endorsement policy.)

According to a 2004 MIT study, “endorsements typically increase the vote share of the endorsed candidate by about 1 to 5 percentage points.” In a close race, these numbers are big – but Coakley’s 19% win makes them look like an afterthought. And with Coakley the clear frontrunner for the entire campaign, it could be that the papers with contrary endorsements didn’t expect to ‘beat Coakley,’ at all.

Still, though largely a product of tradition (in the 1800s, newspapers were financially backed by political parties and so always made endorsements – they used to be exceptionally, blatantly, partisan), newspaper endorsements are an important view into the official political leaning of the editorial staff. They might actually be more important for this reason than for the impact they have on outcome of political races – who we get our news from matters. There is a debate over endorsements – do they mesh with the journalistic emphasis on unbiased reporting?

The American Journalism Review quotes four editors speaking in defense of endorsements: 

• Richard Doak, Des Moines Register editorial page editor: “The primary purpose of editorials is to stimulate discussion in the community [and it’s]..a vehicle through which the newspaper expresses its values.”

• Gail Collins, New York Times editorial page editor: “The point of doing an endorsement of a president, or even a senator, is to continue that conversation… When you weigh in, what you’re really doing is juicing up the conversation, and that’s critical before an election.”

• Lynell Burkett, San Antonio Express-News editorial page editor, and president of the 600-member National Conference of Editorial Writers: “We’re here to present a credible opinion and to stir conversation and debate.”

• Fred Hiatt, Washington Post editorial page editor: The newspaper as citizen – “An editorial board spends four years pontificating and telling public officials what to do,” says Hiatt. “We come to an election, and it’s the one time it’s either A or B. Of course, a lot of times we’re not satisfied with the choice. We wish it was C..but we’re subjecting ourselves to the same binary choice that the voters are subjecting themselves to… It’s a humbling process.”

Couched in terms of conversation-starters, endorsements seem A-OK. But the water grows murky if it appears that a newspaper has a political tie instead of a political opinion.

Back in September, Adam Reilly covered the curious case of the Bay State Banner’s (a weekly newspaper aimed at the African American community) missing mayoral endorsement. The pertinent facts: In April 2009, the Banner ran a scathing editorial titled Change is Coming about Mayor Menino, accusing him of an unwillingness to support blacks in his administration, and advising him to step down. In July, the Banner ran out of money and briefly suspended operations. Menino secured a $200,000 loan, and the Banner was back in business. In September, when the Banner ordinarily would have endorsed a candidate for Mayor, it ran instead a tepid discussion of the candidates, closing with, “Voters should be interested enough in the outcome of the election to study the record of both candidates.”

Reilly called them out on their wishy-washy stance, and on the swing from a newspaper that endorses candidates and thinks Menino should bow out, to a newspaper that does not endorse and instead encourages its readership to study. Reilly writes: “If you’re looking for evidence that [the Banner is a less independent voice post-loan], the Banner’s decision not to make a mayoral endorsement… would seem to fit the bill.”

But even though the Banner’s non-endorsement column revealed the kind of bias that opponents of endorsements wring their hands about, it was a bias that existed before and independent of the column. Human beings have opinions, and simply not admitting them doesn’t render them non-existent – it renders them secret. And since there will always be opinion, it matters that our newspapers are transparent.

Journalism and Gender
December 9, 2009, 4:18 am
Filed under: 1

Two years ago, Mike Penner, veteran sportswriter for the LA Times, took a couple of weeks off work. When he came back, he was Christine Daniels, an openly transitioning transsexual. Two weeks ago, after living for a while as Christine and making the choice to return to Mike, he committed suicide. His transgender identity was public – he announced it in a widely praised column. His transition back to male was, to some extent, also public – his byline changed with him. So what role did this viewing public play in his comfort – or discomfort – with his gender identity?

In a short blog post last week, Adam Reilly described Penner’s death as “a reminder of just how sensitive[ly] the issue of transsexuality needs to be handled.” Reilly referred back to an article he wrote in May about Aiden Quinn, the FTM trolley driver who caused a green line crash as he texted his girlfriend, and who became the center of a (not particularly sensitive) media storm over his gender status. Reilly’s May article dealt specifically with whether or not the fact that Quinn was born female had any bearing on the reporting of the train accident: “Aiden Quinn used to be a woman. Now he’s a man. It’s a titillating detail — but is it news?” Different media outlets had taken different approaches: the Herald, predictably, played it up. The Globe buried it. The crazies freaked out and got snarky with quotation marks. 

Quinn’s high profile crash raised the question of how transgender issues are viewed in the media and by the public – is it fair game to reveal Quinn’s FTM transition if it had nothing to do with the train crash? Or is it sensationalism? In his May article, Reilly concluded that “asking the reporters who covered the crash to omit any reference to Quinn’s sex change is, in essence, a request for journalists to be advocates rather than reporters.” This is a position he still stands by. But in his blog post, he raises the issue that got largely trampled in May’s media shouting match over who was and wasn’t a homophobe – delicacy. On paper, the question of how to describe a transgendered person seems like a debate over responsible journalism – but for that transgendered person, it’s a very personal and vulnerable topic.

Mike Penner’s transition to Christine Daniels was widely praised as courageous and honest, but after 18 months, Christine re-transitioned back to Mike. He never explained why – and now, we’ll never know. But the prevailing theory at the time was that though Christine was a better fit with Penner’s gender identity, the social pressure to respect a two-gender system was too much.

The bottom line is that when a person begins a transsexual transition — especially a very public transition — one trades one set of problems related to having a hidden, real or perceived gender identity that’s in conflict with one’s natal sex for a completely new and different set of problems. That new set of problems often include difficulties related to housing, employment, and public accommodation –basically just dealing with others’ biases and discrimination — family issues related to one’s spouse/ex-spouse and children, as well as having one’s peers, friends and family still seeing you as either still a member of your natal sex instead of your target sex, or as a member of some “third gender” rather than as your target sex. (From Pam’s House Blend)

So what is the appropriate level of disclosure regarding sex-change? Mike Penner’s problems were certainly not a product of pronouns in the media – but his problems were directly tied to the public interpretation of gender. The huge stigma associated with the transgendered community is a wounding one, and it’s important to be aware of its existence. Reilly’s position is just that – be an honest journalist. Don’t shy away from facts just because they’re uncomfortable. But do be aware of their power.

Good Press Without God?
November 28, 2009, 6:32 am
Filed under: 1

How does Godlessness get spun in the press? Adam Reilly usually focuses on media angles and spin – but in Can Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Save Nonbelief from Itself? he tackles the question of how atheism is represented in the mainstream press and in pop culture. Those blue-sky signs on the T – Good Without God?  – represent the emergence of a vocal atheism in Boston and in America; vandalized versions speak to the intensity of the debate that atheism stirs. Between recently published books advocating atheism and Presidential Hellos to atheists, “suddenly, atheism looks like an improbable cultural juggernaut.” 

Reilly examines this New Atheism by looking at Greg Epstein, “Atheist Superstar” – the young and very appealing Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, who has just published the book Good Without God: What a Million Nonreligious People Do Believe. Atheism has been too long defined by a defiant lack of belief in God – a definition based wholly upon a void. In comes Humanism – a secular worldview which prizes humanity and collective dignity over otherworld deity. Reilly writes:

“[T]here is a state in which you’re aware of your own humanity, and you’re also aware of others’ humanity, and you’re aware that all human beings are human. There’s a state in which you’re aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There’s a state in which you don’t have too much clingly connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term – good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there.” (Epstein, from Reilly)

On his Don’t Quote Me blog, Reilly defines this piece as a profile of Epstein – but this piece is also a look at how atheism is portrayed in everyday discourse, and how this portrayal is changing.

Reilly focuses on the “schism” in New Atheism – between “religious humanists” and “secular humanists.” Epstein is of the former persuasion, viewing atheism as an embrace of all people, as opposed to viewing it as the rejection of organized religion, as secular humanists do. These two groups have very different ideas of how to “spread the gospel of nonbelief.” Reilly points to blatantly aggressive acts – like PZ Myers’ The Great Desecration – and to movies like Religulous, which are openly hostile to organized religion – to show that some proponents of atheism are becoming flat-out combative in their defense of atheism from what they see as the encroach of restrictive faith. Of course, the fisticuffs approach to getting your point across is not always the most effective.

Epstein, in contrast to the fighters, is the picture of reason, striking a conciliatory tone – “We’re not here to erase you,” he explains in apostrophe to the faithful via Reilly. “We’re here to embrace you.” 

“[Epstein’s point] is that simply criticizing religion isn’t enough: rather than polemicizing against faith (or each other), nonbelievers everywhere should focus on formulating a positive conception of life that can inspire and guide the godless – faith without faith, if you will.”

 Reilly writes about the striving of one man to unite the faithful and faithless. But he also writes about the struggle going on from within the New Atheist movement to reach a suitable re-definition of terms. Atheism has gotten a bad rap for a looong time – ‘godlessness’ is rarely looked at as a virtue. As atheism enters the mainstream, its bellicose supporters may be doing it more harm than good by describing it as a rock-solid declaration of NO. Epstein is a man with an intriguing philosophy, but he’s also a wise man trying to spin the image of atheism from a negative into a positive.

The Boston Globe Speaks
November 28, 2009, 4:02 am
Filed under: 1

It’s a depressingly familiar refrain: Newspapers are dying! New Media is cannibalizing Old Media! And in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe has exemplified the fragility of the newspaper business – but it has also exemplified its resilience. With online readership replacing print circulation, the Globe faced a terrible choice this year: make $80 million dollars worth of cuts, or prepare to close.

The two men presiding over this hand-wringing crisis were Publisher Steven Ainsley and Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron. They spoke Thursday, November 19th, at Emerson College in Boston, answering questions about modern media in general and about the Globe in particular – how do the publisher and editor work together to run an enterprise that is struggling financially? What does the future hold? While the conversation was occasionally dreary, the upshot was positive. “If you look at media writ large, it’s exploding,” said Baron. The public may be consuming it for free, but journalism itself is not dying – it just needs a new business model.

The Globe’s near-closure came during a period of tumult for newspapers nation-wide – the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, facing drastic cuts, moved online in March, along with many other lesser-knowns. But even against the backdrop of industry-wide strife, the Globe managed not only to stay afloat, but to stay positive. “The business side of our business has been under siege for the last several years,” said Ainsley. “Who’s to say what the future holds? But given our financial performance today, we’re in pretty good shape.”

The Globe is in good shape only after much sacrifice. They had buyouts and layoffs, cutting the newsroom staff by twelve percent. Employees took pay cuts and reductions to their health insurance, and the Globe shuttered its foreign bureaus and dramatically reduced its national coverage. But when this downsizing was characterized as a ‘retreat’, Baron was quick to point out that, “It wasn’t a retreat, it was a withdrawal.” Nobody’s hanging their heads. “We have fewer resources these days,” he acknowledged. “That forces us to make choices. I can rant about them, I can pound the table, or I can do what’s necessary to live within our means… Reality is reality.”

Reality isn’t that bad – readership of the Globe is up: the website,, gets more than five million unique visitors a month. The Globe has a larger web presence, now, and Baron and Ainsley both understand that flexibility is key for the future. “The newspaper industry for the better part of my career has been proud of the fact that if you want to change in this industry, it’s like turning a battleship, not like turning a canoe,” said Ainsley. “We change at the Globe in ways that stun me.”

The change is bumpy, and trying to steer the paper through it is not always easy. But it seems that the Globe’s crisis has been inspiring even as it’s been exhausting. “It used to be we were just a newspaper,” said Baron. “Now we’re not just a newspaper. The capacity to tell stories in new ways is an exciting prospect.”

Not Talking About It
November 15, 2009, 7:42 pm
Filed under: The Elephant in the Living Room

Few conversations more politically and socially freighted exist than that about violence, Muslims, and America. In the wake of the Fort Hood massacre  – the November 5th spree shooting by Muslim army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood Army Post in Texas – it’s a conversation that’s been largely avoided by the press.

Hasan’s religion has been covered – absolutely. But it’s a story told in didactic terms – conservative media presents his faith as motive; liberal media presents it as red herring (“A lot of people are jumping to the conclusion because this man spouted violent Islamic ideology that this is a terrorist attack”)– and in his November 12 Phoenix article Holy Terror, Adam Reilly asks why no one is presenting it as it is: Hasan was an extremist Muslim, but he was also a dark and deranged man – he is neither a quintessentially Muslim murderer nor a purely secular case of desperation and angst.

Reilly writes, “As soon as news of Hasan’s spree started circulating, a debate began raging, which continues as of this writing — and which doubles as an argument over the place of Islam in America.” In the wake of 9/11, the Muslim faith has fallen down a rabbit-hole of American political debate – is it evil? Misinterpreted? Demonized by racist oversimplification? Depends on who you ask.

The Fort Hood massacre has thrust this debate squarely into the national limelight, but so far, the resulting conversation has been disappointingly superficial. Reilly writes:

“That Hasan’s faith and its impact on his actions were topics worthy of sober, nuanced analysis seemed to elude pundits on both sides. Instead, the question was framed in stark terms: did Hasan kill because he’s a Muslim; or was linking Islam to last week’s massacre a gratuitous move that reeked of religious bigotry?”

Coverage of the Fort Hood shooting has either carefully avoided mention of Hasan’s religion, or presented it as his obvious driving force. Consider these two profiles: CNN’s Profiler: Fort Hood Suspect a Loner,  And Fox News’s Closer Look at Fort Hood, Texas, Shooting Suspect. In the national media scene, CNN plays the straight-man – shooting for complete objectivity, in contrast to networks like Fox, whose conservative ideology is an un-kept secret. These two profiles offer strong support for Reilly’s argument that so far, Hasan’s crime has inspired no considered contemplation of what it means to be a Muslim in a country frequently hostile to the Muslim faith.

In CNN’s lede, Hasan is described as fitting “the profile of a mass murderer better than that of a terrorist.” His faith is mentioned only in this context – CNN enumerates the ways in which Hasan does not fit the profile of Jihadist:

“That handbook directs jihadists to conceal their religion, mask their beliefs and blend in. Instead, Hasan frequently appeared in public in traditional Muslim clothing and prayed daily at the local mosque, making no attempt to hide his religion or conservative beliefs, the source said.”

Compare this to Fox News’s treatment of Hasan’s faith:

“Hasan “viewed the war against terror” as a “war against Islam.”… Hasan told classmates he was “a Muslim first and an American second.””

These two profiles, ostensibly of a man, are really of a man’s faith, and its position relative to American ideals. Fox writes Hasan’s Muslim beliefs as a natural lead-up to his crime, without examining how someone practicing the “Religion of Peace” could pervert its teachings so egregiously; and CNN takes the position that Hasan’s Muslim beliefs had absolutely nothing to do with a crime that began with a scream of “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is great” – committed by a man who had repeatedly voiced pro-jihadist sentiments.

Reilly argues that both of these approaches to the question of Hasan’s faith are deeply flawed because neither takes a comprehensive view of both Hasan the man and Hasan the Muslim.

Reilly explains:

“The point here isn’t that Islam is more inherently violent than Judaism or Christianity (take a look at Deuteronomy 2:33–34, or Pope Urban II’s speech launching the First Crusade before you make that argument). It’s that, if we’re not honest about the possible religious roots of Hasan’s violence last week, we risk fundamentally misunderstanding why he acted as he did — and increasing the likelihood that, if another Hasan comes along, the warning signs will again be ignored until it’s too late.”

Hasan’s mass murder calls on us to talk about the Muslim faith and prejudice on both sides – American and Muslim (which, it should be noted, are not mutually exclusive – though they are frequently portrayed as such). It’s an uncomfortable topic. But it’s an important one.

Editorial Content
November 7, 2009, 3:22 pm
Filed under: Opinion

Oh, the editorial page. Where the newspaper goes to unwind – all those opinions, felt and then silenced in the interest of unbiased reporting, let loose. Well – not all. The editorial page is a place where a newspaper can declare itself liberal or conservative, for this and against that; but it’s still an official kind of opinion – no boozy declarations of love or hate. Still, if you’re a person covering the ideologies of the media, then the relatively restrained candidness of the editorial page is probably a good place to start.

In the November 6-12 issue of “The Phoenix,” Adam Reilly writes about the Globe’s editorial page: how, under Peter Canellos, the recently hired editorial editor, the page has moved away from the “knee-jerk liberalism” that the Globe has been accused of for years.

“When people think of the Globe’s op-ed pieces,” writes Reilly, “they don’t usually think of populist pugnacity.” While it is not true that the Globe editorial page was ever a 100% blindly liberal establishment (Jacoby anyone?), it is true that it has been viewed that way. But Canellos is aggressively pushing for a more conservative (or less liberal) bent to many of the articles that appear there.

Reilly points to the Globe’s treatment of a column by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times as Exhibit A. Dowd, explaining why she doesn’t read internet commentary about herself, quoted New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier’s comparison of the internet to “closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone’s drunk and ugly and they’re going to pass out in a few minutes.” The Globe responded succinctly – running a doofy picture of Wieseltier, slack-jawed, drinking a glass of white wine, and comparing him to the bitchy blue-blood Frasier Crane. Reilly points to this column – titled “Elitist Opinoin: This Grudge is for You” – as an example of a markedly changed editorial outlook. It’s usually the Globe being accused of having an elitist opinion, and here, not only is the Globe the one pointing the finger, but the target is “a member of the East Coast liberal establishment” – in other words, an unexpected foe.

But as the Globe’s editorial angle changes, so do its targets. Reilly interviews Canellos, who says that “our positions should reflect the general posture of Massachusetts citizens and Globe readers, which is definitely on the liberal side, but is also independent.”

Reilly finishes by noting that Canellos will be interesting to watch – and suddenly it’s perfectly clear why the Globe’s editorial page bears so much analyzing: because Canellos is “a possible replacement for editor Marty Baron.”

The editorial page of any newspaper is worth reading – it’s important to be aware of the opinions running under the surface of any news publications. But it becomes doubly important to be aware of them when they’re shaped by the possible-future-editor-in-chief of the whole enterprise.