July 30, 2019

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‘I was deeply affected’

This reporter couldn’t get ahold of one of his sources. The heartbreaking story of what happened to her unfolds on ‘The Weekly.’

Jack Nicas, tech reporter for The New York Times, called it “the most challenging reporting journey that I have ever been on.”

The story itself, featured on the latest episode of the TV show “The Weekly,”was heartbreaking enough: older women scammed out of thousands of dollars by fake Facebook users posing as charming American soldiers overseas. The scammers, who set up shop in crowded internet cafes in Nigeria, sifted through Facebook groups to find lonely women and widows to target.

One such victim, a 58-year-old Florida woman named Renee Holland, gave away most of her and her husband’s retirement — more than $26,000. It left her feeling foolish and put her marriage in jeopardy. After meeting with her in Fort Pierce, Florida, in December, Nicas tried to re-establish contact with her after the holidays. He couldn’t reach her. Her phone was disconnected. So he Googled her. He couldn’t believe what he found:

Holland and her elderly father were murdered by Holland’s husband, who then killed himself.

Did the Facebook scam have anything to do with it? We’ll never know for sure. But Nicas had formed a bond with Holland, who had been willing to share with him her deeply embarrassing story.

“It is difficult to overstate how deeply tragic the situation was and how profoundly difficult it was as a reporter to have one of your subjects die during your reporting,” Nicas told me during a phone interview on Monday. “And not only just die, but to be horrifically murdered. I was deeply affected by that and we took a pause in our reporting process to process it.”


Nicas wanted to honor Holland by telling her story, so he returned to report on how stealing money is now high-tech.

“I think social media has certainly accelerated this,” Nicas said, “and given the scammers the ability to more precisely target their victims because they understand who they are talking to and are more accurately able to manipulate them.”

Nicas didn’t report just on the victims. He traveled to Nigeria to find the scammers. What they are doing is horrible, yet they say it’s what they must do to survive.

“It’s a far more nuanced situation than what you originally expected,” Nicas said. “These guys are real people with real consciences and they feel guilty, but like we quoted in the story: Poverty will not make you feel pain. It’s a really complicated human story.”

What’s especially troubling is Facebook’s inability to completely stop these scams from continuing. Since “The Weekly” episode ran Sunday night, Nicas has heard from more folks who have been scammed. One person tweeted Nicas to say her mother was taken for $140,000.

“The Weekly,” which has quickly established itself as must-see TV because of its elite-level journalism, airs Sundays on FX at 10 p.m. and can be livestreamed on Hulu starting on Mondays.


It’s a big week for CNN as debates kick off

A cameraman gathers footage outside the Fox Theatre before the Democratic presidential debates in Detroit. The second scheduled debate will be hosted by CNN tonight and Wednesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The next round of Democratic debates will be tonight and Wednesday in Detroit. CNN has the coverage with Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper as moderators.

The usual subjects — health care, immigration, border security, the economy and climate — all likely will come up, but the real question: Will the debates be dominated by Trump’s recent attacks on representatives of color? And another topic: impeachment.

It’s a fine line. Certainly the candidates want to voice their disapproval of Trump to rally the Democrats, but focusing on other issues is more likely to separate the contenders from the pretenders in the crowded field. It also could be the final debate for a few of the candidates, so don’t be surprised to see a Hail Mary or two that could create some fireworks — if the moderators give them that chance.

Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are the headliners tonight. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, who has hinted he will be more aggressive than during the first debate, lead the second-night candidates.

Poynter’s PolitiFact will be live fact-checking with reporters in both Detroit and Washington, D.C, and will have stories wrapping up both nights of the debate.

35 for —30—

Dennis Whitton spent 35 years running the sports section at the Lowell (Massachusetts.) Sun. But Howell and assistant sports editor Barry Scanlon fell victim to cuts made by MediaNews Group, which owns the Sun. Whitton penned a farewell column that recounted his favorite memories. It also included some remarks as to why he was let go. Apparently, those remarks were critical enough that the column was removed from The Sun’s website.

Fortunately, a Northeastern University journalism professor posted the entire column on his website. Judge for yourself, but it didn’t seem as if Whitton’s comments were that bad.

Among some of Whitton’s remarks:

  • “Corporate cost-cutting is the culprit. Apparently I was making too much money to suit the suits, even with years of frozen wages.”

  • “At least the ax wasn’t performance-related. I know that because the suits in question have no idea what Barry and I did or how we did it. In the end we were numbers on a spreadsheet.”

That was about the worst of it. He also wrote, “If I sound bitter you’re reading me wrong. With all the technology now in play it’s a young person’s game. I’ve probably overstayed my ‘sell by’ date and now I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”

The Sun directed questions to MediaNews Group, which did not return messages for comment. Whitton also did not return a request for comment.

Insert newshound joke here

The Washington Post has hired a new staffer — and he’s a dog. Seriously, it’s an actual dog. The Post now uses a bomb-sniffing dog as a part of its security team. I reached out to The Post, who confirmed that it has access to a security dog, but it would not reveal the name of the dog or its breed. I sincerely hope it’s Woodstein.

PBS exec renews contract and commitment

Paula Kerger, the longest-serving president and CEO of PBS and the only woman leading a national broadcast network, signed a five-year contract extension Monday. In a statement, Kerger said, “Public television isn’t just relevant. The work we do has never been more important. And I’m excited about what lies ahead.”

PBS celebrates its 50th anniversary next year.

Hot type

A construction worker carries bars while helping build a scaffolding on the side of a hotel in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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