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What's Wrong With The Boston Globe
And How to Fix It

by Ken Sanes

(This column reflects the state of things in 1998.)

The Boston Globe wields enormous power over the life of New England. But it routinely misuses that power. The newspaper's most important shortcomings can be summed up in a number of essential points:

* The Globe routinely fails to get behind the scenes to reveal how power is exercised by government, politics, media and business in ways that shape the life of the Metro Boston area. Since this is the most important task of a news organization, it fails at its most essential mission.

* The Globe neglects to cover the local communities where most people live. It focuses its attention on the "big picture" -- the state, the region and the metro core -- and offers uninformative zoned sections that cover what is taking place in the rest of the area's municipalities and neighborhoods. As a result, many people living in the metro area, outside the core, view the Globe as an out-of-town newspaper.

* The Globe routinely uses news stories to achieve various political and personal goals instead of using news to give the public the best possible account of what is taking place that might affect their lives. This is most evident in the growing number of Globe stories intended to discredit political and ideological opponents. Examples include its years-long efforts to ruin former Boston University President John Silber; its recent report on former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, and a host of other stories. The most disturbing example may have been at New England Cable News, a television network whose editorial content is an "arm" of the Globe, although it isn't owned by the newspaper. After then-Republican-governor William Weld fainted in public, New England Cable News showed a videotape of him collapsing. In the video, Weld loses control over his faculties and body, and falls in a way that is disturbing to watch. It is open to debate whether that video should have been aired once. The network showed it over and over in succession, offering viewers a William Weld collapse-a-thon that was obviously intended to degrade him in public.

* Finally, the Globe fails to reveal what goes on at the newspaper that is relevant to its coverage. Instead, it offers readers a counterfeit ombudsman column that makes it appear the Globe is open about its errors and ethical violations, while helping to conceal them.

All of this has come to a head with the controversy over columnist Patricia Smith. As we now know, the Globe concealed the existence of fabrications in Smith's columns. It did so, it says, because it had never adequately dealt with questions about another columnist, Mike Barnicle. When it had no choice but to reveal Smith's fabrications, it offered readers manipulated news accounts that smoothed over important information and made it seem that Editor Matthew Storin was correct in concealing the information and was a victim of circumstances.

One of its business columnists then weighed in with an attack on Attorney Alan Dershowitz for his own attacks on the Globe that were related to this issue. In an odd example of the way the Globe goes after opponents (or, in this case, those connected to opponents), the column savaged Harvard Law School, where Dershowitz is a professor, dragging in innuendoes about a murder case.

As related on other pages, the Globe and others have made clear that the decision to conceal Smith's fabrications the first time they were discovered in 1995-96 was based, in part, on race, which is the explosive subtext many people don't want to deal with in this case. The Globe was partly motivated by a desire to preserve its black columnist, as Globe columnist Eileen McNamara has suggested. And Editor Storin acted on the misguided belief that because the Globe had failed to fire Barnicle, who is white, years ago for fabrications, it couldn't then fire a black columnist for more recent fabrications. As noted elsewhere, in following this distorted idea of racial fairness, the Globe offered Boston's black community -- and other readers -- a fabricator as a public voice and spokesperson.

Unfortunately, metro Boston seems unable to engage in an open and straightforward debate about all this. Many people are afraid to challenge the Globe, because of its power and its history (and the history of other Boston media organizations) of using that power to discredit opponents.

But people and media institutions in the Boston area need to begin speaking plainly about the failings of what is supposed to be the newspaper of record, and of the larger media landscape. Speaking out may not be entirely pleasant, given the current state of things. But not speaking out leaves metro Boston with a distorted public life in which communications are controlled by news organizations and influential people who use it for their own ends.


Go to the next article: Patricia Smith's Virtual Reality or to the main page: Cover-Up at the Boston Globe or to the Homepage for the Transparency website.