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The best and longest story in Sunday's New York Times had zilch to do with Donald Trump, the London attacks, troop surges in Afghanistan or the Israeli nuclear program. No national significance, either.
But Dan Barry's 5,800-word profile of an aging, minor league New England mobster was merely a great tale with a backstory nearly as notable as the saga itself.
New England crime retains a certain cultural hold on us with movies such as "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," "Killing Them Softly," "The Town" and "Monument Ave." And, as longtime Boston journalist Mike Barnicle put it Sunday, it still has remnants of the old (and deadly) pros playing small-ball crime thanks to a mix of cultural inferiority, melancholy professional lives and even a New England hierarchy still reporting to counterparts in New York.
Barry was first acquainted with that universe as a reporter for the Providence Journal. At The Times, he struck up relations with Crimetown, a podcast on crime from Gimlet Media. It had helped him with a previous Times piece on "Pro" Lerner, a complicated bad guy who went from Major League prospect to mob hitman, which led to Sunday's opus.
"They arranged for me to meet Ralph DeMasi, one of the Providence players back in my day, because DeMasi had spent time in prison" with Lerner. One of the Crimetown guys, Marc Smerling (he did 'The Jinx'), went up to Salisbury, Mass., last summer to talk to DeMasi and his ex-wife — and it turned out that we talked more about DeMasi and his wild life than we did about Lerner."
Barry was struck by the 80-year-old DeMasi's bedroom: walls covered with photos of children and of wiseguys, some recognized by Barry, court records in a closet; and a little article, "Tips for Improving Your Memory," on his nightstand.
He tucked the moment away, wondering about maybe doing a story some day on the aging mobster, who'd done tons of time in prison, including for armored car heists. How dark might DeMasi's recollections prove?
The 2016 campaign intervened, sucked up most media energy, and the notion of returning to DeMasi got fainter (he'd called him but never heard back). Then he was at a mall (in front of Sephora) when a call came that the old geezer had been arrested and charged with the 25-year-old murder of Ed Morlock, a 48-year-old security guard gunned down during an armored car heist.
He was startled and breathed a sigh of relief — imagine if he'd written sympathetically of the guy before the arrest! — and turned to mulling his own deep curiosity with the mob.
So he went back to Worcester, Massachusetts and spoke to Morlock's widow and son. "It was moving, and heartbreaking, and yet another lesson in how profound loss cannot be explained away with 'moved on' platitudes."
His first draft was 7,000 words and mostly about DeMasi. It didn't really fit any category, especially since it wasn't a national tale. But two page designers, Fred Bierman and Wayne Kamidoi, suggested the notion of a special section.
That's what happened. "Longform also lends itself to innovative designs by the likes of Bierman, Kamidoi, and Sam Manchester, who created the cover — and, on the digital side, by artists like Meghan Louttit (If you haven't read the piece online, notice how she used brief audio clips of Ralph DeMasi's growl and Jeannette Morlock's grieving voice as chapter breaks!)."
What results is a story that, on one level, is about DeMasi, as is an episode of Crimetown. But, emotionally, it's about a family that understandably never moved on as it sought resolution of violent heartbreak long, long ago.
Megyn Kelly and Putin
The former Fox News host's career at NBC began with an MSNBC interview with Vladimir Putin that proved a predictable rhetorical duel with little bloodshed. One mini-classic came when she broached his relationship with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Putin then alluded to her involvement in moderating a panel at a Putin economic conference:
“You and I, you and I personally, have a much closer relationship than I had with Mr. Flynn. You and I met yesterday evening. You and I have been working together all day today. And now we’re meeting again."
Mourning Manchester, largely forgetting Kabul
From Salon: "We mourn Manchester, but not Kabul: How biased coverage of terrorist attacks drives us apart."
State funds for local journalism
A bill introduced in the New Jersey legislature "would allocate $20 million from the sale of New Jersey's public television licenses — which netted the state $332 million — into a fund through state universities supporting journalistic initiatives and programs. The goal is to have $20 million allocated toward the fund every year for five years." (Poynter)
Public editor exits
After a short and bumpy run that left few footprints, Liz Spayd left as The New York Times public editor (the slot is being eliminated), writing, "It’s not really about how many critics there are, or where they’re positioned, or what Times editor can be rounded up to produce answers. It’s about having an institution that is willing to seriously listen to that criticism, willing to doubt its impulses and challenge the wisdom of the inner sanctum."
"Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model? We’ll find out soon enough."
Facebook's moderation policy
"In most cases, especially today, anything leaked is usually the beginning of a series of unfortunate and very public events that ends with litigation, extreme embarrassment, firings or all three." (Adweek)
"However, the very recent leak of 100 manuals covering Facebook’s moderation policy may turn out to be a really positive thing."
Trump, fake tweets, bots, etc.
"Twitter is certainly clogged with bots — a number of which are designed to elegantly spread information that’s far from credible and push narratives. Scholars at Oxford suggest bots accounted for 18 percent of Twitter’s traffic related to the 2016 election and that roughly one-third of pro-Trump tweets came from bots. Yet while the numbers sound substantial, the true effect these bots have on political discourse is still incredibly hard to quantify." (BuzzFeed)
Michael Kinsley on Trump, NATO
"On his recent trip to Europe, President Trump attacked European leaders in person and in public for failing to meet their defense obligations. Previous presidents have also wanted our fellow club members to pay their dues. Mr. Trump was not doing or saying anything especially new or bold." (The New York Times)
Another Haberman weighing in
A Chicago rape that was streamed online raises questions about a citizens' responsibility in the digital age, while harkening back to famous examples of seeming bystander apathy, as detailed in a smart New York Times piece by Clyde Haberman (dad of Maggie) that's part of it's "Retro Report" series.
CNN, HBO apologies
Who says humility and contrition don't still exist among the media?! "CNN host Reza Aslan has apologized for a tweet he sent out last night calling President Trump a “piece of sh*t.” (Mediaite)
Meanwhile, Bill Maher apologized for using the N-word on his HBO show Friday.(New York Post)
When Megyn Kelly met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in St. Petersburg, Russia, she asked he if used Twitter. Yup. He's got 30.4 million followers, just behind Trump's 31.2 million. (The Hindu)
Birds of a social media feather
So what's the deal with Instagram increasingly resembling Snapchat? Says Instagram's CEO Kevin Systrom, copying is par for the course in technology. The criticism is "fair," he conceded but "likened the two social apps’ common features to the auto industry: Multiple car companies can coexist, with enough differences among them that they serve different consumer audiences." (Recode)
Philip Roth in The New Yorker
Philip Roth, 84, adapts a 2002 speech and writes, "The writers who shaped and expanded my sense of America were mainly small-town Midwesterners and Southerners. None were Jews."
"What had shaped them was not the mass immigration of 1880-1910, which had severed my family from the Old Country constraints of a ghetto existence and the surveillance of religious orthodoxy and the threat of anti-Semitic violence, but the overtaking of the farm and the farmer’s indigenous village values by the pervasive business culture and its profit-oriented pursuits."
The morning babble
"Fox & Friends" offered "team coverage" on the London bombings segued into broaching whether surveillance of mosques in the U.S. is needed. Huh? CNN's "New Day" went the same route with more extensive coverage (no mention of mosque surveillance) and MSNBC's "Morning Joe" focused on Donald Trump's push for a travel ban "as an extra level of safety," as he put it in a tweet.
Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor of The Economist, told the MSNBC pack that a Trump tweet criticizing the London mayor was "absolute nonsense" and prompted folks there to ask, "What planet is he on?" Paul Cruickshank, a CNN terrorism analyst, noted that the British could do more to empower the Muslim community (with more funding) but still has pretty effective engagement with them.
Meanwhile, you might have been better off reading morning obits of baseball's Jimmy Piersall, a talented player who fought mental illness, inspired a movie ("Fear Strikes Out") and later became a beloved and iconoclastic announcer, in The Boston Globe and New York Times, as well as a Rick Morrissey column in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Previously repressed image
"Trump announces Paris climate deal rejection in front of 16 running faucets." Thanks, The Onion.