One of the potential bidders for the Globe just adopted a policy of screening political ads for 'negativity' at one of his other papers. If the move reflects his journalistic philosophy, says Eileen McNamara, Aaron Kushner is not our man. Kushner is pictured here on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The 45-word First Amendment must have been too long to fit on a greeting card.

How else to explain the ham-handed decision by former greeting-card executive and newly-minted newspaper publisher Aaron Kushner to embrace censorship, under the guise of good citizenship, at The Orange County Register.

Normally, misguided policy-making by a West Coast publication would be of little interest beyond my Brandeis journalism classes. But Kushner, a former Wareham greeting card executive who lives in Wellesley, has expressed interest in the past in buying The Boston Globe, which its out-of-town owners have just put on the market.

For 20 years, since the Taylor family sold Boston’s venerable broadsheet to The New York Times, those who love the paper have been yearning for a return to local ownership. Yes, the Sulzberger stewardship was less destructive than other absentee landlords might have been. (“At least it’s not Gannett,” those of us inside the newsroom sighed when the $1.1 billion sale was announced in 1993.) But The Times has never really understood The Globe, no more than New York has ever really understood Boston.

As The Globe’s financial fortunes fell, fantasies flourished of a homegrown rescuer emerging … Alas, if his actions in California reflect his journalistic philosophy, Kushner is not our man.

Never was its contemptuous treatment of the place on greater display than in 2009 when it threatened to shut the newspaper down if it could not extort millions in concessions from union members, even as it awarded its own incompetent executives in New York millions in bonuses.

As The Globe’s financial fortunes fell, fantasies flourished of a homegrown rescuer emerging, someone who would recognize that there is as much to admire as to disdain in this city’s vaunted tribalism, that Bostonians have the same level of interest in international news as their Manhattan counterparts, that journalism is no less a civic trust on Morrissey Boulevard than it is on 8th Avenue.

Alas, if his actions in California reflect his journalistic philosophy, Kushner is not our man.

After complaints by two Anaheim city councilors about an ad that pointedly, but accurately, excoriated them for violating the state’s open meeting law, Kushner directed its advertising department to no longer accept paid ads that criticize politicians by name, according to the Voice of Orange County, a nonprofit, online news website.

“We don’t like negative political advertisements and believe that if we are doing our job, they should undergo a greater level of systematic scrutiny. We take our responsibilities to Orange County seriously so when we see opportunities to improve, we accept that responsibility and strive to do so,” Kushner told Voice of Orange County by e-mail, disputing any suggestion that he was bowing to political pressure even though the policy change came hard on the heels of a meeting between the aggrieved city councilors and Eric Spitz who purchased The Register with Kushner last year.

That heightened level of scrutiny Kushner favors might better be directed at the people in power than at their grassroots critics. The ads objecting to a $158 million subsidy for local hoteliers that proved so problematic to Kushner were placed by Jason Young, who covers Anaheim City Hall for a government watchdog blog called Save Anaheim. Hardly Orange County power brokers.

It is hard enough for grassroots organizations to be heard in politics in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which allows corporations to dump unlimited amounts of cash into the electoral process. A free and independent press is all we have to level the playing field. Save Anaheim’s protests online are little match for the bullhorn wielded by City Hall, especially if the city’s largest newspaper refuses to carry its dissenting views to a wider audience.

Kushner is new to the newspaper trade, winning tentative plaudits for expanding news coverage at The Register. But he might want to add The New York Times v. Sullivan, along with the First Amendment, to his list of required reading. In this landmark decision in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public officials could not prevail in a claim of libel unless it could establish that the material published was false and that The New York Times either knew it was false or had a reckless disregard for whether it was true or not. Without such “actual malice,” the court held, newspapers were free to publish.

In that case, as in the contretemps in Anaheim, the issue was a paid advertisement. Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. sided with the newspaper because of the “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

Make a note, Mr. Kushner, before you even entertain bidding on The Boston Globe.

Editor’s note: Aaron Kushner emailed the author on Thursday to say he had no comment.

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, Mr. Kushner responds in the comments below.


Tags: Boston

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  • Barry Kort

    The Globe also need an owner who understands mass media in the digital age.

    When I am following a story of interest in the media, one of the few media outlets I cannot rely on is the Boston Globe. That’s because links to Boston Globe stories typically bring up a paywall overlay that prevents a community of interest from discussing the Globe’s coverage of a story.

    Here on WBUR’s web site, we find a progressive approach to public engagement with issues in the news and popular culture. The Globe seems to be stuck with a dying model in the age of digital media.

  • Frank Reap

    There is very little ethical news left in the USA. Banks control it all and no one cares.

  • dg

    Barry Kort has it completely right. WBUR does great work. So does the Globe, for that matter, but I don’t read them because of their business model. The concern I have is that WBUR and NPR in general is not big enough to do all of the work at both the local and national levels that the financially healthy newspapers of yesterday were able to do. In other words, the printed media in its heyday did a better job of funding a larger base of important journalism. It’s still a search for a sustainable and scalable digital business model.

  • BostonPeng

    Thank you for publishing this. While I could agree with refusing ads that contain obvious falsehoods no ad should ever be rejected simply because the publisher doesn’t like what the ad says. If you want to cherry pick what gets run find another line of work because a newspaper isn’t what you’re looking for, especially not a newspaper with the reputation that the international Boston Globe has.

    Full Disclosure:
    I haven’t read an article on the Globe’s website since they put up their paywall, and It’s a very rare occasion that I’ll even pick up a print copy of the Globe to read. For my local news I go to WBUR and WBZ, and for my national and international news I turn to NPR, Reuters, the BBC and the LA Times. As a near lifelong fan of the LA Dodgers turning to the LA Times is an easy call, even if my extremely limited income won’t allow me to get a digital subscription. I won’t even consider getting one to the Globe after what the LA Times has done to our local broadsheet since they bought it, especially with the threats of shutting it down completely. Perhaps the next owner will give me reason to rethink that, but if his name is Kushner the idea is a non-starter.

  • isarose

    Please learn the difference between news and ads. News has to be checked for accuracy. Editorials have to be labeled as such. Ads are ads and can be rejected for content. Can you imagine telling Ebony Magazine that they have to take ads from the Ku Klux Klan?

    • pointpanic

      Judging from Morn. Ed’s regular promotions of commercial television, video games and other stories that reflect corporate interests at the expense of the public interest, it’s evident that NPR has contempt for the firewall between news and ads.

  • Aaron Kushner

    Interesting discussion.

    Our policies were and are created after thoughtful deliberation. The newspaper industry as been wrestling with these issues for decades- as shown by the example of the court case referenced in this discussion.

    If helpful, a few additions:

    First, we are aware of the NYT v Sullivan case, and the ad that was rejected would likely have qualified under the “actual malice” standard. We weren’t reading NYT v Sullivan in making this decision, but if we had accepted the ad that we rejected, we would have been potentially opening ourselves to issues, though the bar is clearly quite high purposefully to protect a newspaper’s ability to publish (not an individual advertiser, it is worth noting).

    Second, for those unfamiliar with Anaheim politics, SaveAnaheim is neither poor nor grassroots. Though neither of those factors influence our review of advertising, SaveAnaheim does not lack for means or outlets to exercise its political force in Anaheim.

    Third, we accepted an ad from SaveAnaheim that did not have malice in personally attacking individuals.

    Fourth, this particular set of ads (accepted and rejected) was an interesting case study for us as we actually editorialized on the side of the issue that SaveAnaheim was advertising, so both internally and externally no one could say that we were evaluating the ads based on the underlying political issue.

  • Maggie McFee

    What has the First Amendment to do with this? The First Amendment does not apply to the dealings of individuals, business or corporations. It applies to government and the laws it creates regarding its citizens. The first word makes this perfectly clear. “Congress…”

    In fact, it is that amendment that explicitly protects Mr. Kushner’s right to do everything that you remark on. I don’t know enough about the Aaron Kushner to comment on what he’s done and whether it makes him good or bad, but I do know enough about the Constitution (and misplaced hyperbole) to know that it has no relevance or place in this discussion.

    That might be something for Brandeis to teach as well because this glaring misconception seems to have insinuated itself far up the educational ladder instead of being eradicated in middle school.

    • Maggie McFee

      PS – See also Supreme Court case Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo for those who still think newspapers are inversely beholden to the First Amendment.

  • King Lane

    The Globe also needs writers who abstain from convoluted run on sentences. Ms. McNamara’s piece is rife with them. And she’s a Brandeis journalism professor?

  • J__o__h__n

    I don’t see how refusing to run paid political ads is a free speech issue. Doesn’t the Globe have the right to refuse an ad from anti-choice extremists, holocaust deniers, the KKK, etc? If he told the newsroom they couldn’t cover the story that would be a problem.