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From AJR,   December 1997  issue

Blasted in Boston: Did the Globe Stumble Across the Line?   

Did the Boston Globe's details of outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn's night life go too far?


By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


IF IN THERAPY-SPEAK AN ``intervention'' is when an alcoholic's family and friends gather to confront him about his drinking, then Raymond Flynn has just gone through perhaps the most public intervention in history.

The former Boston mayor and outgoing U.S. ambassador to the Vatican had his alleged (and unacknowledged) drinking problem chronicled dramatically by an old friend--the Boston Globe.

On October 3, the paper ran a 4,700-word story on Flynn's spotty record as an ambassador. Weaved throughout were anecdotes about what the article depicted as the ex-mayor's long-known, but unreported, history as a ``boozer.''

The revelation launched Flynn on the local talk show circuit, calling the Globe's editors everything from anti-Irish Catholic to elitist Puritans. More than 200 readers called to criticize the paper for crossing the line.

And in a town where reporters still knock back a few with the pols they cover, the story also left Boston journalists wondering when the rules had changed. Walter Robinson, who wrote the Globe piece, says Boston is reacting as any extended family would after noticing an uncle drinks too much.

``All of us, as a family, have been in this kind of denial,'' Robinson says. ``In a sense, the Globe stands up at the dinner table and points the finger and says, `There's a problem here.' ''

Robinson's own encounter with Flynn was at the heart of his story.

Robinson, a Globe assistant managing editor, was about to dine with a friend in Boston's North End August 6 when he ran into the popular ex-mayor on a visit home from his diplomatic post at the Vatican. Flynn, Robinson says, was staggering through the street. Recognizing Robinson, he kissed the editor on both cheeks. ``We just wanted to get him off the street because he was making a spectacle of himself,'' Robinson says. ``Your heart goes out.''

Robinson took Flynn to a cafe where, he says, the ambassador refused offers of coffee and ordered a glass of wine. Robinson says writing about the incident did not occur to him at the time because Flynn was in the final weeks of his ambassadorship and apparently on his way out of public life.

A few weeks later, Rep. Joe Kennedy, besieged by his own scandals, dropped out of the Massachusetts governor's race. The buzz grew louder that Flynn, who was without a job, might make a run for the post. One of Flynn's advisers sent the Globe a letter inviting the paper to write about Flynn's three-year tenure in Rome, looking at ``both the good and the bad.''

``I went through a period of some introspection about this,'' Robinson says. ``We decided to look at both the issues of his job performance and his drinking.''

Reporter Kate Zernike was dispatched to Rome to start digging as Flynn wrapped up his duties as ambassador and returned to Boston. Washington correspondent David Marcus worked the State Department, while Robinson conducted two lengthy interviews with Flynn in Boston.

A picture emerged of Flynn as a so-so diplomat who lost interest in his job toward the end of his tenure and spent his evenings in Rome's Irish pubs, continuing a drinking habit observed by Boston reporters during his three terms as mayor. Concerned that the tabloid Boston Herald might do its own story, the Globe rushed its piece into print the Friday after Robinson's last interview with Flynn.

With Robinson writing and Deputy Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr. editing the piece, there was some prepublication debate over the content of the story. The alleged drinking problem was mentioned in the ninth paragraph, on the jump, and was not referred to in the front page headline.

Though the Globe's accounts of Flynn's drinking were well-documented, the story never directly linked them to his work as ambassador.

``Every senior editor involved in the story, we were all in agreement that we had an obligation to inform the public about the job performance of a potential candidate for governor,'' Robinson says.

Flynn saw it differently. ``People at the top of the Boston Globe don't understand or respect working-class families,'' he said in a statement. He denied being anything more than a social drinker, pointing out he is fit enough to run in annual marathons.

Flynn went on the offensive on local talk shows, accusing the paper's ``polo-playing'' publisher and editors of discriminating against him and derailing his possible governor's campaign because he's from a South Boston Irish Catholic culture that still appreciates a few drinks. ``The Boston Globe has decided that I am not their choice,'' Flynn said after clashing with Robinson in a nasty run-in on a local radio show.

Globe Editor Matthew Storin, an Irish Catholic (like the majority of the paper's top editors), says the story had nothing to do with class warfare and everything to do with informing the public about the behavior of a possible candidate for elected office.

``We have a responsibility to inform our readers about both his public behavior and his performance record in a public post,'' Storin told the New York Times.

 Some speculate the story was an especially devastating blow to Flynn because the Globe was such a friend to him in his days as mayor--endorsing him during all three runs for office. Critics say the paper may have also helped create the alleged alcoholic it just exposed. Several Globe editors and reporters admit to ``closing down pubs'' with Flynn.

Flynn says former Globe Metro Editor Kirk Scharfenberg was one of his closest friends. The pair were often seen together in bars, and Scharfenberg, who died in 1992, is said to have gone to bat for Flynn in discussions of news coverage.

It is common knowledge in the newsroom, according to several Globe staffers, that Scharfenberg helped get a reporter transferred to Washington, so he would stop campaigning to write about the mayor's public drunkenness in Boston.

There is still strong sentiment in the newsroom that the Globe took a cheap shot. ``If there was a line to be drawn, generally older reporters [say] the story should not have been run,'' says the Globe's new ombudsman, Jack Thomas.

``There's a sense too many [reporters] are going into people's bedrooms.''

And barrooms. Thomas, a 30-year Globe veteran who admits to drinking with Flynn on occasion, used his column to defend the paper. ``When a standard changes, as I think it probably has here, it puts a lot of pressure on the Globe as to why,'' Thomas says.

Gone are the days when Flynn, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the state's other hard-drinking politicians could relax at the bar with a reporter and not have to worry their drinking stories would end up on the front page.

Soon after the Flynn story ran, the Globe took a shot at another politician in an unbylined October 24 piece on former Gov. William Weld's behavior at a Rolling Stones concert in Foxboro. ``Weld appeared to be so intoxicated that he was having trouble walking before the rock band went on stage,'' the paper reported. Weld, now a private citizen, denied being drunk.

If a ``maybe'' candidate for governor and a former governor are fair game, who's next? ``A number of reporters have said to me, `Woe betide the first Globe reporter who's stopped for drunk driving,' '' Thomas says. ``Can you imagine the scorn?''