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See Something, Say Something #17

Regular Media Criticism from The Shoestring

By The Shoestring

COVID Paywalls 

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, Gazette Editor-in-Chief Brooke Hauser pledged to lift the paywall on virus related stories. In a March 12th editor’s note, Hauser wrote that the paper’s COVID-19 coverage would be free to everyone “for the time being,” with the proclamation, “We are intent on preventing not only the spread of the virus — but also the spread of misinformation.” 

As the virus surges to record levels, the paper has paywalled stories such as “US sets 1-day record for virus deaths” and “Mass. sets one-day record for COVID-19 cases,” leaving readers in the lurch for critical information. The Shoestring searched the “Coronavirus Special Section” of The Gazette’s website to see which stories were paywalled and which ones were not. The most recent un-paywalled story we could access was on September 11th and before that on July 24th (though it is technically possible we missed one). 

The paywall went up at the same time as a nauseating uptick in misinformation and conspiracy theories around both the pandemic and the nation’s fragile political situation, exactly as Hauser feared. 

The Shoestring reached out to Hauser for comment. She has not responded. 

In October, MassLive also put a selective paywall on stories across its site, including those directly related to COVID-19. In the Coronavirus section of its website, MassLive has paywalled a number of articles such as a story outlining the risks of in-person learning as Governor Baker pushes to keep schools open. Another paywalled story (surprisingly) in the same section is titled “‘Climate change continued its relentless march’: 2020 on track to be 2nd warmest year in recorded history,” and is probably a prescient hint of what’s to come. But I was only able to read the headline so I’m a little fuzzy on the details. 

The Shoestring didn’t reach out to MassLive because they never promised to keep these stories free. —WM

Police Commissioner Gets a Column 

Springfield police commissioner Cheryl Clapprood has been a regular contributor to MassLive’s opinion section for quite some time. The website—which is the online counterpart of Springfield’s Republican newspaper—recently announced she would be writing a monthly column. 

In June, as the region and world were rocked by protests responding to police brutality and white supremacy in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Clapprood offered a boilerplate defense of her profession, writing: “There are 900,000 law enforcement officers in the country. Most are good, well trained, professional individuals trying to do the right thing.” She further suggested that her police department—and specifically its narcotics department—needed more funding not less. 

About two weeks after that column ran, Trump’s Justice Department issued a devastating report about brutality within the Springfield department. The ACLU went as far as to say it is “one of the worst police departments in the country.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the narcotics unit which Clapprood had just praised in her recent column took unrelenting heat. As the Boston Globe explains, “the investigation paints a portrait of a rogue unit with little oversight, populated by officers who needlessly escalate encounters, levy brutal beatings without legal justification or reprimand, and routinely provide misleading or false arrest reports to cover up the assaults.” One narcotics squad member told a 15-year-old, “I could crush your [expletive] skull and [expletive] get away with it”. 

Soon after the Justice Department’s findings came out, the city’s NAACP branch called for Clapprood’s ouster. “The NAACP does not have confidence that Commissioner Clapprood can implement the reforms required to ensure accountability and change needed to direct the Springfield Police Department,” the chapter’s president Bishop Talbert W. Swan II wrote in a statement. 

In November, since the Justice Department’s report, MassLive’s Patrick Johnson has reported on more nefarious narcotics squad abuses, centering suspended detective Gregg Bigda. 

In the op-ed announcing that Clapprood’s column would now recur monthly, the Commissioner wrote about the department’s new state of the art indoor shooting range. Despite her aforementioned column which suggested police needed more funding to be better trained in the wake of Floyd’s murder, such as training for body-camera implematation, it seems the training they will receive is on how to execute deadly force. 

Despite the fact that her career is marred by scandal involving falsifying a report early in her career, she now has an even larger platform to manage the image of “one of the worst police departments in the country.” —WM

Gazette is $30,000/year Sponsor of Business Lobby  

When researching a recent Shoestring article, we noticed that The Gazette is a “Downtown Visionary Sponsor” of the Downtown Northampton Association, meaning that they give the association $30,000+ per year. 

Shoestring reporter R. Nicholas describes the organization like this: “The DNA functions as the lobbying arm of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, which is best understood as a union for business owners. As The Shoestring has noted previously, the DNA and the Chamber have played an active role in lobbying for police surveillance cameras and sanctions on houseless people, like removing benches.”

At the same time, Shoestring reporters Sarah Robertson and Blair Gimma have written extensively about The Gazette (and its parent company Newspapers of New England) laying off printing press workers and journalists in the past year. 

In a year with such belt tightening, why would The Gazette funnel funds to an institution that represents values at odds with the paper’s supposed “objective reporting”? 

The paper’s publisher Michael Moses, who is a board member of the DNA, told The Shoestring, The Gazette’s support of the organization is “strictly in-kind, as all of our sponsorship relationships are. I serve on many boards and do not ever suggest or influence coverage of those organizations.” 

Still, the paper is seldom critical of local businesses and the institutions that support them. The Gazette recently covered how the DNA rebranded its annual holiday shopping event “Bag Day” into “Yule Days,” given the pandemic. 

The piece quotes DNA executive director Amy Cahillane eight times. The piece doesn’t include testimony from a single retail worker—some of whom, as Nicholas elucidates, worried about their safety during the Yule Days event. 

The only other person it quotes is The Gazette’s “Special Sections” director, Stephanie Hadley. “DNA came up with the name Yule Days, and her department designed the materials around it,” reporter Bera Dunau wrote. 

Hadley is quoted as saying, “I think it was a great collaboration.” —WM

Will Meyer is a co-editor of The Shoestring.

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