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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 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, May 23, 2003

And so it goes. New York Times reporter Rick Bragg has been suspended for two weeks. The Columbia Journalism Review website has the details.

Here's what I don't get. Bragg is a Pulitzer winner. He was working with an intern -- an intern who actually went to the scene and did the bulk of the reporting. Ethics aside, why wasn't Bragg magnanimous enough to give the kid a byline? Hell, why didn't he put the kid's name first?


posted at 9:38 PM | comment or permalink

Coming to earth? Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell's gravity-defying act has been dealt a setback. Dow Jones reports that Purcell is making some significant cutbacks at Herald Media, which owns the Herald and Community Newspaper Company, a chain of about 100 papers in Greater Boston and on Cape Cod. (Thanks to Cape Cod Media for pointing me to this one.)

In recent weeks, insiders have told me that though things were tight, there was no sign that Purcell was in any financial jeopardy. The Washington office has been expanded from one person to two, and the Herald sent two people to cover the war in Iraq -- a significant expense for what is, essentially, a local paper.

It also comes at a time when the Herald has been tarting itself up. Former editor Ken Chandler, who went on to edit the New York Post, is back as a consultant to Purcell, and the pages lately have been notably more tabloidy, to the distress of some staffers. In addition to such headlines as today's all-caps "POLS PIG OUT" (pork-barrel spending on Beacon Hill) and "HELL NEXT DOOR" (the Hells Angels have bought a house in Chelsea), the paper's two gossip pages have been brought together under the "Inside Track" brand, complete with a comely bimbo of the day.

Still, speculation that Rupert Murdoch, the owner of WFXT-TV (Channel 25), will buy the Herald strikes me as wrong, or at least very premature. Purcell loves being a local media magnate and, if anything, he's been talking about further acquisitions, not a sellout. The Herald's business pages have endlessly hyped the pending repeal of the cross-ownership laws, and Purcell recently told the crowd at his Herald 100 luncheon that he wants to become a radio entrepreneur.

Sounds to me like Purcell intends to try defying gravity for at least a little while longer.

posted at 10:42 AM | comment or permalink

Her brilliant career. Herald columnist Tom Keane today makes two points about Suffolk County sheriff Andrea Cabral's switch from independent to Republican and, now, to Democrat. I think he's wrong on one, but he's surely right on the other.

1. Keane notes that, last fall, Cabral promised then-governor Jane Swift that she would seek election in 2004 as a Republican if Swift appointed her to fill the vacancy. Keane flatly asserts that Cabral "broke her word" by becoming a Democrat, adding that "in politics, it seems, promises often carry little weight -- which may explain why so many voters are cynical about politicians."

Keane's take is accurate but facile. He goes on to detail how Cabral was disrespected by Governor Mitt Romney. As Swift herself knows, Romney's preferred mode for female officials is to walk 10 feet behind him with their mouths shut, la Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey. Okay, Cabral broke her word, but how much was she supposed to take?

And how about that dime-drop re her unpaid student loans that occurred approximately three nanoseconds after she was photographed whooping it up with Ted Kennedy? If she had doubted her party-switching decision at all, she certainly knew then that she'd done the right thing.

2. Keane argues that Cabral might well have lost the election by switching parties. This is counterintuitive -- other analysts have mainly focused on the fact that Suffolk County is overwhelmingly Democratic -- but here, I think, Keane gets it just right.

Cabral, Keane observes, will almost certainly face a challenge in the Democratic primary from Boston city councilor Steve Murphy. Keane writes:

Primary races are low-turnout events, dominated in Boston by more conservative voters, where a candidate's ability to get supporters to the polls is decisive. Murphy has (next to Mayor Tom Menino) the city's most powerful organization, well honed and capable of delivering. Cabral, a political neophyte, has none.

By this calculus, Keane adds, Cabral would actually have a far better chance in the November 2004 general election -- a presidential election, when turnout will be high, attracting the liberal voters whom Cabral needs to win.

This was how former Republican sheriff Ralph Martin did it. It's how Cabral might have done it as well. Instead, perhaps without realizing it, she's chosen a much tougher route.

posted at 8:24 AM | comment or permalink

Mad cow: the prequel. Not to claim prescience or anything like that, but in December 2001 I wrote this piece on mad-cow disease -- and suggested that it was one of the more important undercovered stories on the horizon.

Now mad cow is back. And here's one point the media seem to be missing as they focus on how that animal in Canada ever could have become infected: bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, as the disease is known scientifically, is a rare but naturally occurring disease.

What causes it to spread is the abhorrent practice of feeding dead cattle to live ones. Cattle are ruminants who do not normally eat meat. The media -- not to mention Canadian officials -- should focus on the feed.

posted at 8:24 AM | comment or permalink

The investigation continues. Some small indication of the hell that has descended upon the New York Times can be seen in today's "Editors' Note" about staff reporter Rick Bragg (scroll down).

It also provides some insight into what a Times byline really means. Answer: not as much as you might have thought.

posted at 8:23 AM | comment or permalink

Headline of the day. "Sampson Lawyers May Plead Insanity" (from today's Herald). We were out of our minds when we agreed to represent him.

posted at 8:23 AM | comment or permalink

Thursday, May 22, 2003

The quiet death of a civil-rights pioneer. Last week one of the most significant civil-rights figures of the past 40 years died. Yet you didn't see his obituary in national papers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times -- or even in the big dailies in his home state of Texas.

The person in question was Lee Kitchens, who died on May 12 at the age of 73 near his home in Ransom City, Texas. One would think his passing would have warranted some media attention for his professional accomplishments alone: a longtime engineer for Texas Instruments, he was involved in everything from the development of the first transistor, to the first handheld calculator, to TI's belated entry into the personal-computer market. He also headed up TI's operations in Europe and East Asia at various times before spending his last pre-retirement years teaching at Texas Tech.

Kitchens's claim to wider fame, though, came from his role as a founding father of Little People of America, the largest organization in the world for dwarfs and their families. LPA was founded in 1957 by the late actor Billy Barty; but Kitchens was at the group's second meeting, in 1960, and was one of LPA's most involved members right up until his unexpected death. A former national president, he was vice-president of membership when he died.

It was rare to see a documentary or read an article on dwarfism without coming across Kitchens, who was endlessly helpful with everyone who sought him out -- journalists, new parents, whoever. I had the privilege of spending a couple of hours with him last Fourth of July week in Salt Lake City at the LPA national conference, interviewing him for my book on the culture of dwarfism, Little People: Learning To See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes, which will be published this fall by Rodale.

A laconic pipe-smoker who reminded me of my late uncle, also a native Texan, Kitchens cheerfully held forth while seated on the scooter he used to get around. Kitchens, who was exactly four feet tall, had a type of dwarfism known as SED. Despite his considerable accomplishments, he'd led a sad life in many respects: his wife and their adopted son and daughter had all died. "Past history," he told me, with characteristic Texas stoicism.

If Billy Barty's life as an entertainer symbolized LPA in the minds of the public, Kitchens's life as a respected professional symbolized the organization in the minds of its members. Even though Barty and Kitchens were born not that many years apart, it was as though they were of two generations. Barty was widely credited for having the vision to found LPA; but it was Kitchens whom everyone -- figuratively -- looked up to.

Kitchens served on a number of disability commissions, both in Texas and nationally, and gradually came to see the utility of working with other disability groups in order to advance a broader agenda. It was also his advice that led us, after some years of reluctance, to get a handicapped parking placard so that our daughter, Rebecca, could cut down on her walking. Walking is good exercise, of course; but for a dwarf, moderation is the key lest it begin to take a toll on the back. Better a placard now, Kitchens warned me, than a scooter when she's 30 or 40.

The last time I saw Kitchens was in the fall, when he visited the LPA regional conference at the Sheraton Ferncroft in Danvers, site of this coming July's national conference. It was something of a shakedown cruise, and Kitchens was there so that he could report back to the national officers on how things were progressing. He took a few pictures of Becky as she waited to play boccia (never did see them, unfortunately), and later showed off his digital camera to our son, Tim.

So far, the only paper that has run an obit on Kitchens is the hometown Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

As for all you other editors out there: you missed a big story, but it's not too late.

posted at 9:47 AM | comment or permalink

More Jayson Blair. Yes, I realize that we've slipped past the overkill stage, but here's a link to the New York Observer piece that everyone's talking about, if you haven't seen it already.

Today's Globe has a comprehensive overview of Blair's brief time at that paper. The Globe goes high up with Blair's claim that he's been diagnosed with bipolar disease, better known as manic-depression -- a serious mental illness. If this is true, can't someone please get this guy out of the limelight?

For my money, though, this piece by Jill Rosen, which will appear in the upcoming American Journalism Review, is among the most revelatory. Rosen really gets into Blair's time as a student at the University of Maryland, where all the self-destructiveness that would later bring him down was on full display.

posted at 9:46 AM | comment or permalink

New in this week's Phoenix. The Jayson Blair scandal -- and a host of other less-publicized acts of journalistic wrongdoing -- are further undermining a news media already beset by a crisis of credibility. Plus, crossed signals at the Globe, and the panderers take on flag-burning once again.

posted at 9:35 AM | comment or permalink

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The New Yorker and the neocons. Has the liberal New Yorker become an outpost of neoconservative war-hawkery? That is the argument made by Daniel Lazare in the current issue of the Nation.

Lazare contends that the New Yorker and its editor, David Remnick, have been in retreat ever since that infamous post-9/11 mini-essay by Susan Sontag, in which she blamed the terrorist attacks on American ineptitude (and worse) even as the remains of the World Trade Center continued to blaze.

Lazare's argument is not without merit. Remnick, in signed pieces for the "Talk of the Town" section, came out in favor of the war in Iraq, and Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting built the case both for Al Qaeda's worldwide capabilities and for the essential evil of Saddam Hussein's regime.

But this being the Nation, Lazare travels down several roads that many readers will find puzzling, and occasionally offensive. To wit:

  • Lazare blasts Nicholas Lemann, the author of several important post-9/11 pieces (and the newly named head of the Columbia School of Journalism) as someone who "seems to have reinvented himself as the sort of star-struck journalist who daydreams about fly-fishing with Dick Cheney and gushes over Condoleezza Rice." His evidence: Lemann's use of a pro-Condi quote from another White House official. Really.
  • In a case of moral equivalence run amok, Lazare writes: "Whenever The New Yorker uses the word 'terror' or one of its cognates, for instance, it is almost always in an Arab or Muslim context. While a Nexis search turns up numerous references in the magazine to Palestinian, Egyptian and Pakistani terrorism since the Twin Towers attack, it turns up no references to US or Israeli terrorism or, for that matter, to terrorism on the part of Christians or Jews. A Nexis search over the same period reveals that the word 'fundamentalism' appears almost always in an Islamic context as well." I'm not sure what to say about this except the old standby: I am not making this up.
  • Last year Goldberg wrote a densely reported, important piece on Saddam Hussein's gas attack against the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq in 1988. Lazare, though, is put out that Goldberg had found far greater evidence of perfidy on Saddam's part than had Human Rights Watch in an earlier report, even though Lazare gives us no reason to think that HRW is definitive on this matter. To be sure, Lazare accurately notes that Goldberg reported claims of ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda that have yet to be borne out. Still, Goldberg's report of what happened in Kurdistan was impressive and disturbing. And why does Lazare care that Goldberg served in the Israeli army?

Strangely, Lazare looks at the alleged ideological swings of the New Yorker's investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, without really considering just how plain wrong the guy has been. Hersh's most egregious piece appeared in the April 7 issue, in which he reported that the war was faltering, that there weren't nearly enough troops on the ground, and that the generals were furious with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for leaving American soldiers vulnerable and exposed. I understand that Hersh is a captive of his sources, but he obviously needs better sources. Count me among those who felt used.

In that respect, Jack Shafer's recent Slate deconstruction of Hersh is more valuable for what it says about the New Yorker's shortcomings than is Lazare's ideologically blinkered essay.

It's not that Lazare isn't on to something. It's that this isn't it.

posted at 8:17 AM | comment or permalink

Monday, May 19, 2003

The price of reform. Campaign-finance reform is one of those things that always sounds good in theory. Media Log is not immune to its charms, and in fact continues to be steamed at House Speaker Tom Finneran for his unrelenting campaign to nullify the state's voter-approved Clean Elections Law.

Even so, it's easy to exaggerate the benefits of reform and to play down the unintended negatives. Two examples from this morning's Globe.

On page one, Raphael Lewis reports that Governor Mitt Romney has been accepting campaign contributions from executives at corporations that have business pending before the state, including Fidelity (which would love to keep that mid-'90s tax break), the law firm of Mintz Levin, and EMC Corporation. (To be fair, it sounds like EMC's state ties are pretty tenuous, although founder Richard Egan is involved in the Pioneer Institute, a Romney-friendly think tank.)

That news is broken up by this howler:

Romney ... has pledged to accept no political action committee money, said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

Now, I'm prepared to believe that Romney isn't going to let his decision-making be influenced by campaign donations. I really am. But as Lewis's story shows, political-action-committee money has been fetishized by reform advocates as pernicious in ways that ordinary contributions are not. Yet how does Romney expect to impress anyone with his no-PAC-money stance when he's taking money that is every bit as tied to special interests?

There's nothing unique in what Romney is doing. The PAC-money-bad/special-interest-donations-okay hypocrisy has become standard for any politician looking to boost his campaign account while making googly eyes at reformers. Still, no one should be impressed.

The second story, which appears on page three, concerns those boneheaded attack ads aimed at moderate Republicans such as Maine senator Olympia Snowe and Ohio senator George Voinovich, who have been singled out for insufficient loyalty to George W. Bush's radical tax-cutting agenda.

Bush's chief campaign strategist, Karl Rove, is quoted as calling the ads "stupid and counterproductive and not helpful," which they surely are. But illegal? Could be, given a prohibition on certain types of advocacy-group ads that mention elected officials or political candidates by name.

The ads are sponsored by the Republican-libertarian Club for Growth. The club's president, Stephen Moore, tells Globe reporter Nicolas Thompson that complaints that his group's ads are illegal "are pretty frightening from a free-speech perspective."

Thus does Moore show a far better grasp of the First Amendment than he has of politics.

posted at 7:38 AM | comment or permalink


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

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