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See Something, Say Something #9

Regular Media Criticism from The Shoestring

In a new media column, The Shoestring will reflect on recent local news.

[This installment of See Something, Say Something takes place in the Berkshires, focusing on The Berkshire Eagle, the daily paper based in Pittsfield. These entries are slightly longer than our typical entries. –Eds] 

Eagle in Flight 

On June 2, the Boston Globe’s Sunday edition ran an intriguing article, headlined “news revival in the Berkshires.” The lede of the story describes the Berkshire Eagle as a “once-great daily newspaper whose staff, circulation, and prestige all declined dramatically during two decades of corporate ownership.”

From there, the article follows a compelling storyline. Local benefactor Fred Rutberg, a retired district court judge with a passion for civic uplift, was one of several investors who bought the county’s lone daily paper in 2016, ending the decades of cost-cutting and mismanagement by evil media conglomerate Media News Group.

From there, it’s all rainbows and sunshine: digital subscriptions up 60 percent, a renewed focus on investigative reporting and a corresponding “increase in furrowed brows among local officials who are now being confronted by a more active press.”

The Eagle’s transformation is indeed a good news story, and publisher Rutberg deserves credit for hiring new reporters, like Investigations Editor Larry Parnass, and deepening the paper’s coverage of small South County towns.

But the Globe’s glowing portrayal glosses over the pro-business bias in the Eagle’s coverage that appears resistant to any change in ownership.

The credo of American journalism has long been that there must be a firewall between the advertising and editorial departments. But small papers like the Eagle are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of advertisers. A study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Advertising, based on a survey of more than 200 U.S. dailies, found that small outlets were more likely to “endorse scenarios where editorial integrity was compromised to please or refrain from offending their advertisers.”

For a sense of how this plays out in the Berkshires, look no further than the nurses’ strike at Berkshire Medical Center in 2017. During this time, the Eagle ran an equivocal editorial that some perceived to be anti-labor while none of its regular columnists—who normally would have written about such a major story—wrote any pieces either for or against the strike, raising the question of whether they had been barred from broaching the topic altogether.

All of this was to be expected, of course. For the Eagle to have supported hundreds of striking health-care workers would have gone against the interests of Berkshire Health Systems (BHS), of which BMC was a subsidiary. BHS has long been the primary purchaser of ads in the Eagle, buying space to announce new hires, promote educational events and push their community outreach initiatives. On some days, BHS-affiliated entities—Fairview Hospital, BMC—account for nearly half of all advertisements printed in the first two sections of the Eagle.

During the strike and subsequent lock-out, BHS purchased five full-page ads to push their point of view.

I would love to see more sympathetic coverage of labor in the Eagle. But given the structural constraints of local journalism, I won’t hold my breath. — Seth Kershner

A Negligent Hagiography of a Judge. 

As someone with more than a passing interest in the local criminal legal system, I was disappointed (though not surprised) by the June 2 Berkshire Eagle front-page puff piece devoted to Judge Daniel Ford’s retirement.

Ford, who presided over a number of high-profile trials (by Berkshire County standards) while a Berkshire County Superior Court judge, should instead be remembered from his time in the DA’s office, as one of the two prosecutors who successfully, and mistakenly, tried Bernard Baran for child sexual abuse. Mistaken, at least, according to The Washington Post, The Nation and The Boston Globe.

Bernard Baran, a young gay man who worked at a daycare, was a tragic victim of the rampant “Satanic panic” hysteria of the 80s and 90s (See also: the McMartin Preschool Trial). He was initially accused by confidential narcotics informants who allegedly said they “didn’t want no homo” watching their child. He was convicted of sexually abusing several children at the daycare, based on what was later revealed to be the children’s coerced and specious testimony. There was no evidence of abuse by Baran, and in fact plenty of evidence that two of the children were being abused by their mothers’ partners. But the children were coached to comply by crackpot therapists and misguided parents, and the case was every bit a modern witch trial.

Baran maintained his innocence while in prison, where he was sexually assaulted repeatedly. In 2006, 11 years after his conviction, he was granted a new trial (not without serious stonewalling by then-DA David Capeless). In 2009, his conviction was overturned, with the Appellate Court concluding, “it cannot be said that the defendant received anything close to a fair trial.”

Bernard Baran was released in 2009 and enjoyed a few years of freedom before dying suddenly, at home, in 2014. It’s a tragic ending to a short life of incomprehensible suffering.

And yet, for all this noteworthy backstory, the Berkshire Eagle barely covered Baran’s trial in the Ford retirement piece, confining it to a few perfunctory details of the trial, noting, “Ford declined to offer comment on that case.”

Bernard Baran was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and repeatedly sexually assaulted while inside. All because of Ford’s prosecution. How come the Eagle didn’t see fit to press him on it?

Instead, Ford opined that he was able to do the work that he did by compartmentalizing: “If you took everything home with you, you’d go crazy, and there’s always the next case coming along.

To this day, I can’t find a single shred of evidence that he’s ever admitted that he was wrong, and that he sent an innocent person to prison.

This isn’t the first time the Eagle has let Ford (and the DA’s office) off the hook. In an editorial from late last year, the Eagle referred to 1984, the year in which Baran was accused, as “a time when society considered ‘gay’ and ‘pedophile’ practically synonymous terms.” A blithe dismissal, given the fact that the people who chose to prosecute (and shoddily represent) Baran were worldly, highly educated people with advanced degrees and experiences outside of the Berkshires. (Ford himself got his JD at Boston College.) It makes me think that whoever assigned and/or edited this story—who knows, it may be the same person who wrote this editorial—is under the impression that the miscarriage of justice that happened to Bernard Baran was inevitable and a product of the time, rather than a product of a grossly incompetent prosecutor’s office.

There is no excuse for the way that Baran was targeted, for the fear that the Berkshire DA’s office stoked in the city, or for Ford’s refusal to come clean some 35 years later and admit that he was wrong. It’s pathetic that the Eagle didn’t offer its readers something a bit more reflective in its coverage of Ford’s retirement. — D.E. Rasso

Seth Kershner is a writer and researcher whose work has appeared in outlets such as Rethinking Schools, Sojourners, and Boulder Weekly. He is the co-author (with Scott Harding) of Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). His recently wrote “Hampden County’s Pepper Spray Problem” for The Shoestring. D.E. Rasso is a writer and editor living in Berkshire County.

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