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.
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.