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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

As The Globe Turns   

After a harrowing summer dominated by the ethical lapses of two now-departed star columnists and the rancorous aftermath, the Boston Globe and Editor Matthew V. Storin struggle to regain traction.

Related reading:   Taylor Made
  Stayin’ Alive

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

IMAGINE A SUMMER IN WHICH IT SEEMS AS IF VIRTUALLY every doomsday topic of every newspaper seminar came to life in one newsroom.

Where one of the franchise columnists is ousted for making up stories and plagiarizing from others. Where a second columnist, a star so bright the editor has pinned his Pulitzer hopes on her, is also asked to leave for fabricating.

The departures raise anew questions of the commitment of the newspaper to diversity inside and outside the newsroom. Management's shaky response to the ethical transgressions triggers serious doubts about the paper's leadership and, indeed, its very culture.

In spite of the most aggressive assurances from top editors, summer passes without a clear sense that anyone has been held fully accountable for the turmoil, causing staffers to look over their shoulders at the corporation that bought the newspaper just five years ago.

"Imagine the worst summer you could possibly have had and this would have been it," says Adrian Walker, a political writer for the Boston Globe. "All newsrooms have a laundry list of issues to deal with, but we spent a summer dealing with ours in public. For two weeks there were TV trucks in front of the newspaper every day. What this newsroom needs is a period of calm and stability. And no news coverage."

Calm and stability, Walker admits, will not be easily secured at the Boston Globe. Scattered at the feet of Editor Matthew V. Storin and his chief deputies is the wreckage of the reputation of what--remarkably, given all of the turmoil--is arguably one of the 10 best newspapers in the country. The blunt pain of betrayal has subsided in the newsroom, leaving behind a vague sense that not enough punishment was meted out, not enough lessons have been learned and not enough grieving has taken place.

The hiring of two new columnists and the revision of the Globe's policies on anonymous sources are universally seen in the newsroom as the two most necessary, tangible steps to be taken to enable the paper to get beyond the recent trauma. Both are being handled in a way that some say is both grudging and deliberate, by a manage-ment team the newsroom, amid rampant speculation of a coming shakeup, has been told it can count on in the future.

Adding to the uncertainty is the possibility that the New York Times Co., which purchased the Globe from the Taylor family in 1993, will use the December 31 lapse of its first five-year contract with the paper to move in and right the wrongs of the past summer. In a newsroom whose stock of self-pity has yet to be exhausted, anything seems possible.

"Nobody knows what could happen, nobody knows what is going to happen," Walker says. Nevertheless, he adds, "This newsroom believes that a management team that knows them and understands them is preferable to one that would march in here from New York."

Walker's prescription for a news blackout on Globe angst will almost certainly go unfilled. A month after the paper asked Mike Barnicle to resign and three months after it asked Patricia Smith to leave, the beleaguered Storin was forced to come to the defense of a third Globe columnist, Eileen McNamara, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. McNamara vigorously denied charges that she had plagiarized in a book she ghost-wrote with the former daughter-in-law of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The charges were leveled by a Moon family attorney and a professor who had previously written a book on the Unification Church. Little, Brown, the publisher of McNamara's book, "In the Shadow of the Moons," dismisses the charges as "unfounded and without merit of any kind."

While Storin points out the Globe had nothing to do with the book, he wasted no time in going public with his defense, which appeared in a lengthy story in the paper's September 23 Living/Arts section.

The embattled Storin had spent his summer countering charges that he was responsible for covering up for three years the knowledge that Smith had been making up characters and then not quite telling all of the story when the Globe announced in its June 19 editions that she was leaving. When the Globe and its rival, the Boston Herald, received a tip that Barnicle had stolen jokes he used in a column from a book by comedian George Carlin, a book that Barnicle had earlier touted on his local television spot, it was the Herald that broke the story.

Storin's fate is at the center of a 10,000-word piece on the Globe in the October issue of Boston Magazine. Senior Editor Sean Flynn lays blame for much of what occurred over the summer at the doorstep of Storin, whose days at the Globe, he concluded, might add up to weeks rather than months. Flynn, whose magazine has nettled the Globe for years by dogging rumors of Barnicle fabrications, said Storin has lost any meaningful constituency in the newsroom.

Nevertheless, Storin's boss, Publisher Benjamin B. Taylor, has expressed his full support for his editor and says he has no plans to replace him.

Colleagues are most concerned about whether or not Storin can triumph over his own temper. Boston Magazine has taken to referring to Storin as "Mad Matt," a man whose "meltdowns," it wrote, have created a climate of fear in the newsroom. Editors close to Storin say Taylor, while publicly endorsing his editor, has privately told him he must curb his outbursts. There would be some irony, after all the criticism of his management style, in having Storin fired for failing to manage himself, one of those editors says.

There is also more than a little irony in the insistence upon anonymity by many in the Globe newsroom. As they await the revision of the newspaper's policy on using anonymous sources, a score of reporters and editors either declined to comment or failed to return telephone calls when asked for interviews by AJR. Dan Kennedy, whose coverage of the Globe for the weekly Boston Phoenix is widely respected in the Globe newsroom, relies--sometimes exclusively--on anonymous sources to get closer to the truth.

"The people in that newsroom are so unbelievably terrified," Kennedy says. "The suggestion has been made to me that people are waiting around for the other shoe to drop. On one hand they worry about Storin going crazy over something, and on the other hand they wonder whether or not he can reunite the newsroom. It is difficult for someone who is not a charismatic leader, who has that temper. The tragedy is, Matt Storin has made the Globe a better newspaper. That's got to count for something."

IT COUNTS A GREAT DEAL TO BEN TAYLOR, the fifth in a line of Taylors to serve as Globe publisher and the great-grandson of the man known as the paper's "builder," Charles H. Taylor.

The affable Taylor, who recently succeeded his cousin, William O. Taylor, as chairman of the board and chief executive officer, says that after a tumultuous summer, it was "essential that Matt know he has the confidence of the newspaper behind him." Taylor is quick to point out that, after a 10-year drought, it was under Storin that the Globe won three consecutive Pulitzer Prizes: for David Shribman's political reporting in 1995, Robert Cambell's criticism in 1996 and McNamara's columns a year ago.

"Matt Storin is the editor of this paper and will continue to be the editor of this paper," Taylor says. "As difficult as it was, I do think he did the right thing with Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle. I think it was a testament to this paper that we covered ourselves the way we did. That is part of our strength."

Taylor is counting on Storin to choose from a closely guarded list of names the two Metro columnists to replace Barnicle and Smith. "I want to make it clear that it's Matt and his deputies who will be responsible for picking the two new columnists," Taylor says. As for his input, Taylor would say only that "they will somehow have to represent the best of what the paper stood for in the past and will in the future."

From the candidates on the list, Storin told the newsroom he hoped to select at least one minority columnist. Particularly because of the circumstances of Barnicle's and Smith's departures, top editors including Storin say they would insist that columns stress reporting over opinion.

Only after he left did many newsroom staffers learn that Barnicle--hired to write his column in 1973--had never been a reporter, but rather an elevator operator, speechwriter and colorful Boston gadabout. Smith started as a typist at the Chicago Daily News and became an editorial assistant at the Chicago Sun-Times, where she was encouraged to pursue feature writing. She spent four years in the Living/Arts section of the Globe before she was named a Metro columnist.

The short list, Storin says, has saved him the trouble of deciding whether it is best for the newspaper to make a conscious effort to depart from the style and the substance of Barnicle and Smith.

"We are actively going through the process right now and I think we're largely through," Storin says. "I think from what I've seen, the columnists we choose will have quite different personalities than their predecessors."

Executive Editor Helen W. Donovan, Storin's second in command, says there is no reason, given the talent in the Boston Globe newsroom, to surrender the emotional pull Barnicle and Smith had with readers. But the past summer's message to top editors is obvious. "I think it's implicit to say that these will be highly reported columns," Donovan says.

Editors under the direction of Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr., the managing editor for news operations, have been working for the past three months on a new policy governing the use of anonymous sources. Realizing that eliminating the practice is close to impossible, Storin says the paper would like to impress upon editors and reporters the need to reduce the use of such sources and to justify and explain them when they are used.

Such a policy already exists at the Globe. Storin, careful to avoid suggesting that the vast majority of Globe reporters and editors has not always adhered to the highest principles of journalism, calls the revision a "sprucing up." Donovan says the changes might not seem enough to critics outside the newsroom who expected personnel changes at the top. But, she adds, "I don't think there needs to be anything louder or more cataclysmic."

In the current newsroom environment, this attitude has indicated to some that the top managers aren't certain anything was seriously wrong. Critics inside the building see the delay in issuing a strong new policy as evidence of a lingering denial of what Barnicle and Smith did. More significantly, in conversation after conversation with reporters and editors for whom "accountability" is a mantra, it becomes clear they are convinced that the newspaper's culture itself will crush real reform.

"Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. If in fact Pat [Smith] did not deny making up numerous columns back in 1995, and if due diligence confirmed that, then I think she should have been fired on the spot, because it's fundamental in this business that quotes and characters can't be piped," says Ben Bradlee Jr., the paper's deputy managing editor for projects. "That's journalism 101. True, firing Pat would have raised the Barnicle problem, but so be it. Better to have scrubbed Mike then than postpone the day of reckoning."

BRADLEE'S OWN DESCRIPTION OF THE GLOBE is echoed throughout the newsroom. A close examination of the daily Globe confirms an excellence even more remarkable for the absence of two of its fallen stars. Staff bylines on international, national and local stories are everywhere--wire appears to be a last resort. In an era of reduced capitol staffs around the country, the Globe is suffused with political coverage. The writing throughout the paper is sharp and bright.

"Let me stress that I think this is a very good newspaper," Bradlee says. "It is one of the best regional papers in the country. It's a regional that chooses its opportunities to make its mark nationally and internationally."

Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, says he saw as typical the Globe's decision to spend extra money to make its presentation of the Starr report readable and accessible. The former network television correspondent grows impatient with the suggestion that the Globe must take hasty and dramatic measures to appease constituencies within and outside the newspaper. The newspaper's real commitment, he says, must be to putting out a great product.

"The Globe is doing exceptionally well," Kalb says. "How do I measure that? By the quality and the breadth of the stories they continue to produce every day. They have gone through the kind of problems that rip the guts out of a newspaper. To make a quick and easy decision, to dump Matt Storin because they need a scapegoat, would be a terrible blunder."

The ongoing agony has perhaps made it more difficult for the Globe newsroom to realize that much of the readership it serves has put the past summer behind it. Barnicle's resignation August 19 put the lie to the fear that thousands of subscriptions hinged on his column. Storin will say only that there were cancellations but would not confirm the number circulating in the newsroom--a paltry 187. And some of those subscribers have already come back, according to some editors.

During the weeks in which Barnicle went from being suspended to being gone, Thomas G. Stemberg, the chief executive officer of Staples, an office supply chain and a major Globe advertiser, wrote a letter to the editor that was seen as a veiled threat. "I strongly feel," Stemberg wrote, "that Mike Barnicle's column is an essential component of the Globe's editorial content and a key element of the Globe's attractiveness as an advertising vehicle." But Staples did not stop advertising, nor did the Globe lose any other accounts in the wake of Barnicle's departure, Storin says. Asked by AJR to explain what his letter meant, Stemberg declined, saying through a spokesperson that the letter speaks for itself.

Like most major newspapers in America during the current buoyant economy, the Globe is comfortable with its double-digit profit margins. Circulation, much as it is elsewhere, is another matter, dropping from 507,000 daily five years ago to 473,000 by last March. The Sunday circulation of 750,000 has slipped more slowly but steadily during that time.

To the outside world, the Globe appears to be much the newspaper it was before the Barnicle and Smith episodes, says Richard C. "Bink" Garrison, the chairman and CEO of Ingalls, one of the largest advertising agencies in Massachusetts. Ingalls created the ad tag "Have You Seen the Globe Today?" for its sometime client. Garrison declares his bias up front. He is a newspaper maven who grew up with the New York Herald Tribune and who relished the distinction between the lively Tribune and the sober New York Times. The Boston Globe, Garrrison says, has the style of the Tribune with a far more significant impact upon its New England readership area.

"I am just a huge fan of the paper," Garrison says. "Anyone who reads the Globe will tell you it is diminished by not having Mike Barnicle writing for it. But in most ways, I think it's very much the same newspaper. The two columnists are gone, but the paper has so much more to offer than that. It's like knocking a couple of lifeboats off the Queen Elizabeth."

A formidable, luxury liner quality is precisely what will steer the Globe through turbulent waters, says John Marttila, one of the state's most influential political consultants. According to numbers gathered by the Marttila Communications Group, the Globe is read by about 40 percent of the eligible voters in Massachusetts. The reader demographics--educated and affluent--could hardly be better, Marttila says.

"I don't think there is another state in the country served by a paper with this kind of reach," Marttila says. "Its coverage is critically important to political candidates. Its coverage drives television coverage. It remains an enormous political influence and a powerful institution in this region."

Marttila credits Matt Storin for achieving his goal of eradicating the historical perception of predictable liberalism in the Globe's political coverage. The Marttila Group's clients over the years have included the state's most prominent liberal Democrats, among them Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and Rep. Barney Frank.

It is significant, Marttila says, that at a time when much attention is fixed on how the Globe is perceived in the community, the editorial board chose not to endorse either of two women running for congressional seats or the woman running for attorney general in this election.

"I think if this paper was shell shocked by what happened over the summer, it might have been a little more politically correct. I think that sends a message," Marttila says. "It's no secret they've moved away from what might have been seen as a more liberal slant. It's a stated objective. I think they have moved to a more mainstream political coverage."

Storin's altogether laudable goal of fairer political coverage, however, does not begin to address what Kalb calls the Globe's "split personality."

"The paper has lived for decades with a tension between the patrician and the plebeian," Kalb says. "A lot of people who either own or ran the newspaper are of vintage New England stock," he adds, "while a lot of the people who buy the Globe are of ethnic stock. This has made for some wrenching considerations."

WHILE A SURGE IN THE NUMBER OF HAITIAN, Asian and Hispanic residents has helped make Boston a 41 percent minority community, the heaviest criticism of the Globe has come from the African American community. Many prominent blacks in Boston concluded Patricia Smith was dismissed swiftly and brutally because she was black, while Barnicle was allowed to linger until it became impossible to ignore his lapses.

"It's easy to reach a non-race-based consensus that Smith cheated and should suffer for it," Boston civil rights attorney Margaret A. Burnham wrote in the August issue of Boston Magazine. "The real issues are harder ones, which so far the Globe has ducked: Did Smith's knack for raising tough questions about powerful people have anything to do with her termination?"

The Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown believes people in the black community have answered that question affirmatively. Brown, a founder of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, a group of clergy and lay people organized in 1992 to combat gang violence, says he complained to Storin about the way the paper handled the Smith situation.

"Ben Taylor and Matt Storin have talked of diversity in the past," Brown says. "There are times when the Globe is very perceptive about handling issues of race with balance. But when this Patricia Smith thing happened, it felt like backsliding. It was like pouring gasoline on a fire."

The difference, says Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, is that Smith irritated and frightened people while Barnicle appealed to advertisers as well as readers.

"They'll deny it to high heaven, but when a major advertiser like Staples threatens to pull its ads you leave a perception," Alkins says. "As I said to Matt Storin, 'If you are making an economic decision, you are making a correct decision. If you are making an ethical decision, you are making a mistake.' "

That comment underscores the vast gulf between the expectations of various segments of the Globe's audience and the people who work for the paper. Globe management cannot take solace in the fact that many Globe readers frankly do not care that Barnicle made up some characters in his columns. In remarks echoed in numerous conversations during a visit to Boston, one young fellow explained over Memphis-style ribs at Redbones Barbeque in Somerville: "What difference does it make? He told stories I liked to read with morals like hard work paying off and saying what you think is right."

"Journalism is a profession not unlike that of the medical profession, with rules and ethics the public might not understand or care about," says Ingalls' Garrison. "Those rules and ethics are important to the doctor because they're important to the patient. With newspapers, the customer is always right, except when he's not. Not when serving them means destroying the organism that produces the product."

This common acceptance of ethics and standards is crucial to understanding the newsroom's reaction to an August 13 editorial in the New York Times by Editorial Page Editor Howell Raines. In an "Editorial Observer" column published six days before Barnicle resigned, Raines strafed Storin for suggesting that what Barnicle had done was a lesser crime than what Smith had done.

"I can't buy that," Raines wrote. "Public respect for newspapering is wounded when the rules that would be enforced with doctrinal ferocity among the mass of journalists are lightened for a star who has great value to the paper.... The historical bottom line of this event will be that a white guy with the right connections got pardoned for offenses that would have taken down a minority or female journalist."

For all of what the Boston Phoenix's Dan Kennedy has called the "grotesquely inept" missteps, some editors say that Storin's insistence upon submitting Smith's work for a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, despite previous questions about her veracity, is one of the clearest symbols of what is wrong at the paper.

"He named her a columnist and he wanted her to succeed in the worst way," Bradlee says. "She had star quality. She was gradually taking the journalism world by storm. She was worth nurturing and developing, but not at that price."

The newsroom got another shocking reminder of the summer's calamities when Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz reported on September 14 that the Globe was considering publishing a belated farewell column written by Barnicle. The acknowledgement by Globe spokesman Richard Gulla gave the mistaken impression the paper had entertained taking Barnicle back, although he said the prospect was "highly unlikely."

Storin and the top editors on the news side say they dismissed Barnicle's request out of hand. But the fact that it lingered for a time in the hands of Editorial Page Editor H.D.S. Greenway, who eventually rejected the column, was met with disbelief.

The paper allowed Smith to write a farewell column with the headline "A Note of Apology," which to some in the newsroom read like a bracing challenge and to others a scoffing at everything they believed in. Adrian Walker, who was part of a petition drive that started with minority reporters to protest the perceived double standard in disciplining Barnicle and Smith, says the last thing the paper needed were any last words from Barnicle. Whereas minority reporters almost uniformly agreed on journalistic principle that Smith needed to be fired, Walker says, they felt whipsawed by management's waffling over Barnicle. (The Globe also declined to let Barnicle publish his column as a paid ad.)

IN AN AUGUST 12 STORY BY GLOBE REPORTER Thomas Farragher, staff feature writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez said the Globe was a "racist institution" that pays "lip service to diversity."

"As much as people believed Pat Smith was given a job because of the color of her skin, I believe that Mike Barnicle was allowed to keep his job because of the color of his skin.... Not many of us are stupid enough to say it in print. I am one of the few who puts my integrity above my paycheck."

If so, Valdes-Rodriguez, who did not return AJR's calls for comment, makes her statements from the comfort of an institution in which the ouster of Smith and Barnicle is a radical aberration. Until about five years ago, the union contract protected white-collar workers from economic layoffs. It has been a great source of pride to the Taylor family that journalists who delivered could be assured job security.

While the newspaper created by the Taylors is first-rate, the sentiment of its founder perhaps better expresses the best and worst of the Globe. "My aim," Charles Taylor once wrote, "has been to make the Globe a cheerful, attractive and useful newspaper that would enter the homes as a kindly, helpful friend of the family. My temperament has always led me to dwell on the virtues of men and institutions rather than upon their faults and limitations."

"Without being guilty of hubris or false pride, I think we have much to be proud of in our 126-year history," Ben Taylor says. "I don't believe we avoid problems, I believe we confront problems. We were the ones to print the quote that we were a racist institution. That, too, is part of our strength."

Managing Editor Gregory Moore, the highest-ranking black journalist at the Globe and the editor of Smith's columns, admitted not recognizing false elements in Smith's stories spotted by other editors. "On a personal level, it was like being betrayed by a girlfriend or a spouse," he says.

Moore is dismayed at what he termed an "intemperate" statement by Valdes-Rodriguez and the demand by some that Storin resign. "Does racism exist here in the same way it exists everywhere? Yes," Moore says. "Is this a racist institution? Hell no, or I wouldn't work here. Alisa is a living example of why that isn't true. And people who say that there has to be bloodletting have blood lust, that's all."

In a sidebar to Sean Flynn's October Boston Magazine piece, celebrity attorney and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz says only by holding top management accountable for the past summer will the Globe's integrity be repaired. "The Globe's parent company, the New York Times, will have to take steps lest association with the Globe tarnish its own reputation," Dershowitz wrote. Dershowitz, who received a reported $75,000 in a settlement with the Globe over a racial slur attributed to him by Barnicle, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Ben Taylor says emphatically that he has been given every assurance that the New York Times Co. intends to allow the Globe to maintain its editorial independence. "This has been a very successful marriage," Taylor says of the $1.1 billion purchase of the Globe by the Times in 1993. "The Times and the Globe have extraordinarily similar values. We stand for the same things. We stand for the right things."

A growing number of editors have concluded the Times Co. sees having a Taylor at the top of the masthead as integral to the Globe's success. And a growing number are resigned to accepting at face value Taylor's insistence that Storin will pull the Globe through.

Storin is as close to defiant as one can be having served this summer as "the unluckiest editor in America," as he told the Washington Post in a quote much chided in the newsroom. "I'm sure there are some in this newsroom who would have liked to see me out of here. That's natural. I think it's time for people who are waiting for the other shoe to drop to realize there isn't going to be another shoe."

As he has since the beginning of the longest summer of his life, Storin promises his newsroom no magic solutions.

"I don't think you can pull any rabbits out of hats," he says. "We just have to do good work. From where I sit, every day we put out a good newspaper is another day between us and Barnicle and Smith."