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Notes and observations on the press, politics, culture, technology, and more. To sign up for e-mail delivery, click here. To send an e-mail to Dan Kennedy, click here. For bio, published work, and links to other blogs, visit www.dankennedy.net. For information on Dan Kennedy's book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes (Rodale, October 2003), click here.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Time for Bulger to go. UMass president Bill Bulger took the Fifth this morning rather than answer questions from a congressional committee. I can't say I blame him: the committee, chaired by Vince Foster obsessive Dan Burton, had set a classic perjury trap for Bulger. If Bulger contradicted anything he'd said before a federal grand jury nearly two years ago, he could have been hit with perjury charges. He wasn't allowed to see a transcript of his grand-jury testimony, even though a copy had been leaked to the Globe. So his choice was to hope his memory was perfect, or to keep his mouth shut.

That said, it's now time for Bulger to resign. His failure to cooperate with an investigation of the corrupt deal that the FBI made with his homicidal brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, is understandable -- up to a point. But it's also completely inconsistent with his status as one of the state's leading public citizens, and with the need to learn the truth.

Besides, if Bulger leaves instead of making a pathetic attempt to hang on, he may manage to accomplish something that at one time would have been thought unimaginable: to be held in higher public regard than Cardinal Bernard Law.

posted at 12:03 PM | link

What's wrong with talk radio? Onetime Boston City Council candidate Anthony Schinella, now a reporter with Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell's Community Newspaper chain, has written a worthwhile column on the demise of talk radio. (Inexplicably, his byline got dumped, although maybe it will be restored by the time you read it.)

Schinella -- a liberal who's hosted a talk show at Tufts's WMFO Radio (91.5 FM), but could never break into commercial radio -- laments the dominance of conservatives on talk radio. The culprit, he argues, is deregulation, which led to the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s and the horrendous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed a few megacorporations to gobble up most of the nation's radio stations.

Normally, I'd be the first person to scream "First Amendment!" But broadcasting is, as Schinella points out, different: the reason it was regulated in the first place was that it necessarily involved the government's parceling out a scarce, publicly owned resource -- the airwaves -- to corporations that would then turn around and use that public resource to make a profit. Broadcasting, as Schinella notes, "is a closed market. Companies or audiophiles can't just buy a transmitter and start broadcasting. Well, they can -- but they will quickly find themselves in jail."

In such an environment, it made sense to require broadcasters to offer a variety of views in return for being awarded a license to print money. Unfortunately, that thinking no longer prevails. Free-market ideology rules, even though the nature of the technology makes a true free market impossible.

Schinella also takes on another shibboleth:

Radio programmers say that liberal talk show hosts can't make it because listeners don't want to hear liberals on the radio. But in an area that is dominated by a left-of-center voting population, these comments don't ring true. As well, liberals have never actually been given a fair opportunity to compete in the Boston.

I'll take it one step further. Although there are few examples of successful liberal talk-radio hosts in commercial radio, they have done quite well in public radio -- which is, after all, essentially a privatized system dependent on ratings, listener donations, and corporate underwriting, and is thus at least as sensitive to market pressures as commercial radio. Centrist and liberal-leaning shows such as The Connection and On Point, on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), have done quite well, as has the nationally broadcast Talk of the Nation.

Indeed, former Connection host Christopher Lydon was among the most popular talk hosts in Boston when he got dumped nearly two years ago in the midst of an incredibly ugly contract dispute. The fact that he was unable to work out a deal with any of the city's commercial stations speaks volumes about their priorities -- not so much to keep liberals off the air, I would contend, as to maximize profits with cheap, lowest-common-denominator programming.

Unfortunately, deregulation continues apace. Paul Krugman has a good column in today's New York Times on the deregulatory zeal of FCC chairman Michael Powell. And the Center for Digital Democracy has an excellent guide to what's at stake.

posted at 10:02 AM | link

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Howell Raines's critics get to howl. It's ironic that longstanding conservative criticism of New York Times executive editor Howell Raines has come to a head at the exact moment that liberals are finally beginning to speak up about the conservative media.

In recent weeks the Times has mounted a relentless, and incredibly boring, crusade to force the Augusta National golf club to admit women. Newsweek's Seth Mnookin reports all the messy details, going so far as to quote an anonymous staff member as saying that Raines is "in danger of losing the building."

Now we learn that Times managing editor Gerald Boyd -- perhaps acting on Raines's order, perhaps not -- killed two sports columns that took issue with Raines's anti-Augusta crusade. Romenesko has all the dirt, including a defensive, self-serving memo from Boyd.

Almost from the moment that Raines was elevated from editorial-page editor to executive editor, just before 9/11, conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, as well as a few moderates such as Mickey Kaus, have railed against his supposed liberal bias on issues ranging from welfare reform to the Bush administration's regime-change policy with regard to Iraq.

Of course, the Times has always been the house organ of what Richard Nixon used to call the Eastern liberal establishment. But the Times' brand of liberalism was always polite, respectful, and not particularly ideological. Under Raines, the critics charge, that liberalism has become harsher and more confrontational.

Former Globe columnist (and Bush cousin) John Ellis has gone so far as to argue that this new liberalism may even be good for business, as the media marketplace may be changing from one that rewarded objectivity (always a dubious concept) to one that favors different ideological flavors for different audiences. (Ellis notes that those are merely the views of a Smith Barney analyst he'd talked to, and that he's not completely convinced.)

Recently the mediasphere has been abuzz with the revelation that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has functioned essentially as a political consultant to George W. Bush, and with Al Gore's interview with the New York Observer, in which he accurately described the relationship between the Republican National Committee and such conservative news organizations as Fox, the Washington Times, and Rush Limbaugh's radio program.

But it looks like conservatives have managed to change the conversation once again. It's too bad that Raines himself deserves much of the blame.

posted at 11:46 AM | link

If you knew what we knew, then you'd know what we know. Mitt Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom today invokes the second-to-last refuge of a scoundrel in response to veteran liberal policy advocate Jim St. George's contention that the state budget crisis isn't as bad as Romney aides claim. (Patriotism, of course, is the last refuge.) Fehrnstrom told the Globe's Yvonne Abraham:

If Jim St. George had access to the same data we've been looking at, it would make his hair stand on end. This is not the time to be playing politics by downplaying the problems facing the Commonwealth.

No it isn't, Eric. So put those numbers out there and let us all have a look.

posted at 11:45 AM | link

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Bulger and the Watermelon Man. For US Representative Dan Burton, the past week has been like magic. He has metamorphosed from right-wing nutcase to august statesman, and all he had to do was issue a subpoena to UMass president Bill Bulger.

Burton, famed for shooting up a watermelon in his backyard as part of his so-called investigation of Vince Foster's suicide (Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, 5/5/98), and for attempting to subpoena Elian Gonzalez (UPI, 1/21/00), is now being taken seriously for the sole reason that he's zeroed in on the politician everyone loves to hate.

The editorial pages of the Globe and the Herald, as well as Globe columnists Scot Lehigh and Eileen McNamara and Herald columnists Cosmo Macero, Peter Gelzinis, and Shelly Cohen, have all called on Bulger to obey Burton's subpoena and tell his committee what he knows about his serial-killer brother, former Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. The only columnist who has leapt to Bulger's defense is the Globe's Brian McGrory.

I'll admit that I'm tempted to side with McGrory -- to urge Bulger to tell the grandstanding Burton to screw. There are two really odious aspects to this: the implication that Bulger is somehow complicit in his brother's misdeeds, of which there is no evidence; and, of course, Burton himself.

But, yes, Bill Bulger should testify. Whitey Bulger, as we all know, was at the center of a vast criminal conspiracy in which he and his gang were protected by the FBI -- perhaps the worst scandal in the history of that scandal-plagued agency. And Bill Bulger's testimony to a federal grand jury -- improperly leaked to the Globe's Shelley Murphy, but fascinating nevertheless -- suggests that the Good Brother may have known a bit more about the Bad Brother than he's ever admitted publicly.

Burton or not, this is a legitimate inquiry. Bill Bulger should testify -- or be gone.

posted at 9:54 AM | link

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Starbucks versus Dunkin' Donuts. The hell with politics. Let's talk about something really important: coffee. Today, Globe business columnist Charlie Stein -- after admitting that he's "a non-coffee drinker" -- asserts that he can't understand how Starbucks can thrive in the shadow of Dunkin' Donuts. "I can't fathom why people are willing to pay $3 for coffee when the Dunkin' Donuts down the street charges half as much," Stein writes. "But customers are willing to pay up, even when money is tight."

Charlie, since you admit that you don't drink coffee, did you at least check the prices before you blithely stated that a cup of Starbucks costs double that of the same brew from DD? Now, I don't have a price list in front of me, but as a frequent customer of both establishments, I can tell you, without fear of having to post a correction later today, that a cup of regular coffee costs pretty much the same at Starbucks as it does at Dunkin' Donuts. Maybe Starbucks will set you back an extra quarter or so, but it's worth it to be able to choose between dark roast and mild, and to be able to add half-and-half and sugar to your own liking rather than allowing some DD drone to turn your "regular" into a lukewarm coffee milkshake.

What costs $3 and more at Starbucks are those fancy espresso drinks, the lattès and cappuccinos that Starbucks-haters are so fond of sneering at. But even at the upper end of the menu, the prices at Dunkin' Donuts are nothing to rave about. Starbucks's Frappuccino and DD's Coolatta are both ridiculously expensive. But I've been into Dunkin' Donuts stores where a Coolatta costs more than any Frappuccino. Plus, Frappuccinos are great; Coolattas are revolting.

If you want more on the great Starbucks-Dunkin' Donut debate -- and other than Charlie Stein, who doesn't? -- check out the "Wicked Good Guide to Coffee," at Boston Online.

posted at 9:11 AM | link

Monday, December 02, 2002

Does Russert go both ways? An alert reader sent me this gem, from the October 13 showing of Meet the Press. Said Tim Russert to Lindsey Graham, the Republican candidate for the US Senate from South Carolina (and the eventual winner in the Strom Thurmond sweepstakes): "Since Inauguration Day, the Dow Jones is down 26 percent. The unemployment rate is up 33 percent. The budget had a $281 billion surplus. We now have a $157 billion deficit and there's been a net loss of two million jobs. You were prescient, prophetic about the Bush tax cut. Why did you change your view and vote for it?"

Now, every honest liberal who opposes the Bush tax cuts knows that they have scarcely had an impact on the federal budget so far -- the impact will mainly be felt in future years. So here Russert ascribes the effects of the bursting of the stock-market bubble, the resultant recession, and the economic fallout from 9/11 to the Bush tax cut and tries to hang it around Graham's neck. This is just more disingenousness on Russert's part, and I'm not surprised that the conservative Media Research Center singled it out as an example of liberal media bias. (I would provide the direct link, but 10 minutes of futzing yielded nothing more than a microscopic image of a PDF file.)

posted at 12:28 PM | link

The early bird catches Russert. Apparently I'm going to have to get up earlier if I want to beat Bob Somerby. Today's Daily Howler -- which I'm pretty sure was posted before my Russert-Kerry item (below) -- makes many of the same points. Worth reading.

posted at 11:29 AM | link

Russert to Kerry: Why won't you help the rich? I caught the last 15 minutes of Tim Russert's interview with John Kerry last night when CNBC rebroadcast Meet the Press. And what I saw was the host peppering Kerry with what were essentially Republican talking points about tax cuts, and intellectually dishonest ones at that.

Russert asked Kerry whether he favored rolling back the Bush tax cut. Kerry -- trying to be a little too cute for my taste, but nevertheless clear on what he wants -- essentially said, no, he wouldn't, but he would oppose "any new Bush tax cuts," meaning that he would cancel cuts for future years that have been approved by Congress but that have not yet taken effect. Instead, Kerry said he favors a cut in the payroll tax -- i.e., the Social Security tax -- that would favor middle- and lower-income workers, and would give an immediate jolt to the floundering economy.

It went downhill from there. Let's go to the transcript:

MR. RUSSERT: But would you implement the ones [tax cuts] that are now scheduled to take place?

SEN. KERRY: Those are new tax cuts.

MR. RUSSERT: The Bush administration says that is raising taxes because people ...

SEN. KERRY: Well, I don't care what they say, Tim. The average American understands that a tax cut that you don't have today is a new tax cut. It's not raising taxes. I mean, at the same time, I told you, if you're told by NBC that your pay is going to go up in a year but it doesn't go up because they can't afford it, did you have a pay cut? The answer is no you did not.

MR. RUSSERT: But the Republicans...

SEN. KERRY: And in no way -- look, we can't cower in front of their silly argument that by not being given a new tax cut it's an increase. No average American believes that's an increase, and every American...

MR. RUSSERT: So when the Republicans wanted to limit the growth in Medicare that should not have been called a cut by Democrats.

SEN. KERRY: No. If you're holding something at equal spending, but inflation is going up at a rate above that, you're not keeping up with inflation, that is a cut. That is in fact a cut, Tim. But the fact is that if you don't get a tax reduction that is promised -- now, look, the heart of this tax cut is in 10 years.

Did you catch the reference to Medicare cuts? Back in the late 1990s, the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans tried to cut Medicare. They protested loudly that all they were proposing was a slowdown in the rate of growth, not an actual cut. But, in fact, that slowdown would have required a cut in services -- higher costs for senior citizens, less health care, or both. Yet Russert compares a proposal that would have actually reduced medical benefits for the elderly to tax cuts for the wealthy that have been passed but that haven't yet been implemented. Who was that speaking into his earpiece? Karl Rove?

Russert then flashed on the screen a quote backing across-the-board tax cuts: "In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut its rates now." I instantly recognized the quote as being from John F. Kennedy; I'm not sure whether Kerry did or not, but when Russert smugly revealed his source a few moments later, he acted as though it were an "ah, ha!" moment. Kerry didn't fall into Russert's trap, but neither did he offer the most effective comeback: that the top marginal tax rate when Kennedy came into office was 92 percent. Today it's less than 40 percent, and will fall to 33 percent if all of the Bush cuts are implemented.

Back to the transcript:

MR. RUSSERT: And the people at the top end pay a disproportionate number of the tax revenues.

SEN. KERRY: Yes, they do.

MR. RUSSERT: Why would you deny them a tax cut?

SEN. KERRY: We aren't. We gave them a tax cut. We've given people a tax cut in the last few years, Tim. The question is: Can we afford it now, measured against the other needs of the country? If John Kennedy were here today, I am convinced John Kennedy would feel we need to invest in our education.

Look, we have 25 percent of our kids, preschool, in poverty in America; 20 percent of our children are in poverty in America.

MR. RUSSERT: But he [Kennedy] gave an across-the-board tax cut...

SEN. KERRY: But...

MR. RUSSERT: ...wealthy and middle class and poor.

SEN. KERRY: But, Tim, you can't do it all at the same time. That was a different economic time. That was a different moment. It also was preceded by a different number of years under the Eisenhower administration, during which we had a different economy. We have given tax cuts in the last few years, but we have disinvested in America.

Later on, Russert asked Kerry, "But won't you be branded another Massachusetts Ted Kennedy liberal?" He surely will be if interviewers such as Russert are going to engage in the kind of disingenuousness that he displayed on Sunday.

posted at 9:59 AM | link

Sunday, December 01, 2002

A famously overused word. I think it was when I hit upon the fourth occurrence of "famously" in today's Globe that I threw up my hands and said, "Enough!" (Well, actually, I neither threw up my hands nor said, "Enough!", but you know what I mean.) "Famously" has become a verbal tic of first resort for too many writers. The rule seems to be that if you're describing something even moderately well-known, toss in a "famously." Or, as with the Globe's description of the "famously vicious crocodiles" in Lake Tanganyika, use it even if you're describing something not previously known by a single one of your readers.

Using the Globe's search engine, I came up with seven instances of "famously" today. The other six: "the famously liberal leanings of this city" (in a piece on the Cambridge school system); "He ... famously covered 'All Along the Watchtower'" (Jimi Hendrix's 60th birthday); "the famously staid precincts of Boston Common and Beacon Hill" (a reminiscence of a free Haight-Ashbury-style clinic during the late 1960s); "Genena Overholser ... famously wrote in 1989" (on a 14-year-old rape victim who has made the courageous decision to go public); "Thabo Mbeki ... famously rejected world medical opinion that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus" (an editorial on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa); "The Beatles came, most famously, in the '60s" (a piece on the roots of Hinduism).

By the way, that's two "famously"s in the Ideas section alone. Perhaps, in addition to Ideas, they could also use a Clue.

"Famously" has become a crutch for writers either too lazy or too much in a hurry to come up with something better. Try "memorably," "notoriously," "infamously," or -- and here's a truly radical idea -- no adverb at all.

posted at 10:03 AM | link


Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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